Slave to the Blog: Russian Parades, Missile Launches and Purges Edition

May 13, 2015 7:00 AM

Countries like to own their victories, and the US is no exception. But it doesn’t take revisionist history to acknowledge that the Soviet Union was pivotal to the defeat of Nazi Germany. We can quibble about how the job got done: the competence and ruthlessness of Zhukov’s management of the Eastern Front—extending to his own troops--is fair historical game. But the Soviet Union bore the brunt of German expansionism. Max Hasting’s estimates in Inferno are pretty standard and tell the story: over 25 million Soviet citizens killed including over 10 million soldiers. And it mattered. Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses at the hands of the Red Army.

Therefore it was with some sadness that I watched the spectacle of the Victory Day parade and both the Western snub and Russia’s continued pursuit of militarized nationalism. We shouldn’t be celebrating our military hardware and sending threatening signals, but recognizing weapons as the unfortunate necessity that they are. If you want to see what nationalism can do, check out the breathy Wikipedia entry, with its catalogue of the weaponry on parade, or the blow-by-blow of the parade itself—replete with exclamation points—on Sputnik.

But this is a Korea peninsula blog and of interest are the implications going forward. The Russian celebration is yet another indicator of the emergence of a loose coalition of states that have interests in the intersection of Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union and the variety of parallel Chinese initiatives (the Silk Road, the AIIB, and so on), seasoned with varying degrees of anti-Western sentiment. The most significant outcome of the summit was the signing of a host of agreements between the two countries that appeared to merge these efforts.

As we have argued in a succession of posts, North Korea is certainly seeking to get on this bandwagon and play the Russian card. But we never thought that Kim Jong Un would attend the Victory Day celebration; Nick Eberstadt, however, put it in print. Theories abound, and Asahi summarizes them. They include the absence of adequate Russian deliverables (including weapons sales). But the most obvious is the prospect of Kim Jong Un as a marginal figure in a group photo dominated by much more significant players. According to the South China Morning Post, DPRK representative Kim Yong Nam got only a photo-op with President Putin, met primarily with Prime Minister Medvedev and had no substantive exchanges with Xi Jinping.

Now we have additional theories for Kim Jong Un’s absence from Moscow: that the “pressing domestic priorities” that kept him at home included a new round of missile tests that he had to “oversee” and a pretty significant purge.

We have remained silent on the missile tests because it is still not clear that they occurred; the most recent US government skepticism is reported at Bloomberg here. Joseph Bermudez has a succession of good stories on the submarine fleet at 38North (for example, here and here) including observations of vertical test stands that could be part of a sea-launched ballistic missile development program. But in a sharp-edged November post, 38North made clear that evidence of production on a new class of subs was not equivalent to saying that the North Koreans were building a ballistic missile submarine (such as a Soviet-era Golf II class), despite what the ROK Ministry of Defense (MND) had said on the issue.

Dan Pinkston at the International Crisis Group in Seoul noted to me that following missile launches, the ROK MND typically announces test flights immediately. But what was announced around the time of the launch was tracking data on three ship-to-ship missiles. It is possible that there was a launch effort from a barge—which have been cited in the vicinity—or as the official skeptic noted the test of some sub-systems (such as the compressed-gas ejection system, which would give you a nice plume of water). The main point: Photoshop is a crucial propaganda tool and pictures of the Young General should not be taken at face value.

The “pressing domestic priorities” are more likely to have included a very significant purge: the execution of Minister of the Peoples’ Armed Forces Hyon Yong Chol (NKNews coverage here; Michael Madden’s North Korea Leadership Watch bio here; Madden has not weighed in on the blog on the execution although in an interview he has said he found it plausible). The announcement came from the National Intelligence Service in a briefing to legislatures and was issued with what appeared a high level of assurance.  The NIS apparently thinks that Chol was executed for falling asleep during a parade at which Kim Jong Un was in attendance. I am highly dubious, but if true it shows how the regime is being ruled by whim in a way which is completely subversive of competence and initiative. More likely, this continues a pattern of purges that began well before the execution of Jang Song Thaek and have included not only the more dramatic executions of last month but the widespread churning in the top security positions that I tracked with Luke Herman and Jaesung Ryu here.

One thing is certain, though; whatever the politics of the missile tests and purges, they are not likely to generate new invitations from either Moscow or Beijing. Kim Jong Un and his minders don’t seem too troubled, though; expect more of the same in the months ahead.


Liars N. Fools

There was a theory that the possibility of a trip to Moscow was one element restraining KJU from carrying out a major missile test or perhaps to do another nuke test. If the same logic of his non-attendance at Moscow applies to his likely non-attendance at Beijing in September -- where KJU would be even more of a freakish ornament -- then we need to be aware of whether we are now headed towards a cycle of threat and provocation. Certainly the naval warning to the ROK forces in the West Sea was fairly clear, and we should probably not look so much at the stunt-like sub launched missile but at tests of components of longer range missiles. Time to bring out the helmets again in Seoul.


Thanks to Michael Munk, this amusing caveat on the reliability of reporting on the various executions:


...and no sooner had we posted the caveat on the executions than Joseph Bermudez weighs in with an update on 38North on the submarine issue:


And now for the complete walk-back, although who knows? Hyon Yong Choo might still be dead for all we know.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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