A Unified Korea – The Finland of Northeast Asia

16 02 2018

PyeongchangRadio Sputnik International (Pivot to Asia 15.02.2018) An amazing thing is happening in Korea. The North and the South are experiencing a thaw in relations and a visit by the President of South Korea to North Korea is on the cards. This thaw has huge geopolitical implications.

Dr. Leonid Petrov, a visiting Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, at The Australian National University in Canberra discusses the situation with host John Harrison.

The West has perhaps been caught off guard by what is happening right now in Korea. The North and South of country are on the verge of opening up diplomatic negotiations despite the will of the USA. When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un proposed resuming talks with South Korea in his New Year’s Day address, Seoul seemed to leap at the opportunity. Dr. Petrov explains that President of South Korea Moon Jae-in was elected with a promise that he would improve relations with the North, and that has not yet happened. Now it is possible, after a 10-year freeze that another era of ‘sunshine policy’ will once again lead to improved relations. “Before then, there were zones of cooperation, charter flights between the two countries; tourists could drive their own cars into North Korea to visit their loved ones who they hadn’t seen for decades after the Korean War.” Koreans, whether they live in the South or the North, Dr. Petrov says, are, in general, interested in improving relations between the two countries. But unification would bring its own difficulties. “Young and old will all tell you that unification of the country is their dream. But it depends what the next question is going to be. Are you going to introduce a unification tax, are you going to give your job to brothers and sisters in North Korea, who would agree to be paid half of your salary? So they might say — let’s have unification sometime in the future, not now. South Koreans view North Korea as a territory which needs to be liberated and emancipated.”

One could perhaps compare the possible unification of the two Koreas with the unification of East and West Germany, but that, Dr. Petrov said would not be a very good comparison because the wage levels of North Koreans are proportionally far lower than those of the East Germans before the Berlin wall came down. The South Koreans are extremely well educated now and competitive in commercial and industrial know-how and skills, this is clearly very different from the situation in North Korea. “North and South can talk about unification but only after a joint process of collaboration and education. That’s why President Moon Jae-in’s thesis is firstly one of reconciliation, second, economic integration and only then unification. The nuclearization, well that’s something that makes the whole story very complex because North Korea is not preparing to denuclearize.”

The Americans see their presence in South Korea as having provided stability in the area, surely they are not going to take been shouldered out lying down?, John Harrison asks. To that, Dr. Petrov answers that the whole idea of American presence in South Korea is based on anti-communist sentiment. “It is very ideological and political; this is in essence, a Cold war mentality which brings together American and Seoul right wing politicians. …For them, it is important to stand together because China and Russia are just next door, and the Americans want to be present. South Korea provides the opportunity for American troops to be stationed in the South Pacific….An American withdrawal would undermine the whole thesis of an American-Korean brotherhood in arms built on anti-communism.”

Since coming to power, President Trump has questioned Seoul’s contributions towards the alliance, opened renegotiations of the long-fought US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and threatened direct military action against the North for which the South would bear the bulk of the risk. Dr. Petrov says that South Korea is the power that will benefit from Trump’s inconsistences in foreign policy. “South Korea will gain access to raw materials and minerals which North Korea is now selling to China….South Korea will be much stronger. This is why Japan is so paranoid about reconciliation as well. Everybody is against the idea of reconciliation but one country, and that is Russia. Russia is very keep to sell its raw materials and expertise to the unified Korea….Right now, North Korea is a black hole in a quickly growing region. For Russia, it makes much more sense to support the unification project because that will open the doors to export opportunities in South Korea, and the Russian Far East is hugely under developed and under populated….I think it is a win-win-win situation for Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul to see the reconciliation process restarted, maybe at the expense of the South Korean-American alliance. The Americans don’t want to see a unified Korea right next door to Vladivostok, the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet. China is also paranoid about potential US military bases on its borders. So, for Russia and China, it is important to see Korea as a kind of Finland of East Asia. A country which is nonaligned but prosperous, which is peaceful but vigilant, and is an economic powerhouse.”

There is a possibility that the current thaw between the two Koreas might actually lead to an increased likelihood of war because the US may feel that it needs to safeguard its alliance whilst it can. Dr. Petrov explains that this is unlikely because of the close proximity of large centers of population spread between the two countries. “What President Trump was talking about last year, about fire and fury, about a nuclear armada all turned out to be just empty talk, he didn’t send a nuclear armada to the shores of North Korea because the coastline of North Korea is not far away from the Russian coastline, and the Russian Pacific fleet. I don’t think the United States is going to jeopardize its own naval and air assets and the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens who live work and study in South Korea because if war starts there, there is going to massive loss of human life, huge nuclear contamination of the whole region and economic disaster for everyone involved. South Korea would not tolerate any reckless action, President Moon Jae-in made it very clear to President Trump that there will be no war without his consent, that there will be no war against North Korea without the specific permission of the South Korean government, and the South Korea government is not suicidal…”

Listen to the full podcast of this interview here.

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Have We Underestimated Kim Jong Un?

20 10 2017

Sputnik International - John Harrison(Sputnik International, Level Talk with John Harrison 13.10.2017) Dr. Leonid Petrov, a visiting Fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, at The Australian National University in Canberra joins the program and supplies a very different narrative from that of the mainstream media.

Dr. Petrov starts the program by stating that at the present time there seem to be no negotiations taking place. “Even when US Secretary of State Tillerson tried to enter into discussions with Jong Un, President Trump dismissed such attempts as being a waste of time. Attempts at dialogue finished in 2008 when the ‘6 Party Talks’ ended… I never thought that format was going to be a success because there were simply too many parties to come to a sensible agreement.”

The Obama administration did not wish to negotiate with N. Korea, Dr. Petrov says. “Obama refused to negotiate, preferring to wait until N. Korea falls to bits. There was nevertheless an attempt to negotiate, which led to an agreement, in February 2012 between Washington and Pyongyang. They basically agreed to improve bilateral relations, not only in terms of politician and diplomatic channels, but also in sports, academic, and humanitarian channels. But when N. Korea launched a rocket to celebrate the anniversary of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong Un’s late grandfather, this deal was torpedoed as in firing this missile, N. Korea violated a UN agreement….If the Americans had been more sensitive to the fact that this happened during the first year in power of Kim Jong Un, the present situation would be very different.”

The underlying narrative that the West holds that Kim Jong Un is some kind of psychotic dictator is discussed. As Dr. Petrov points out that there is a real problem, as nobody wants to understand Kim Jong Un’s points of view: “Nobody talks to Kim Jong Un. China doesn’t like him. He was invited to Moscow for the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Kim Jong Un agreed initially but then refused after Obama and Merkel indicated that they would visit….Can you imagine the main Korean newspaper showing the Greatest of All Leaders standing next to other Heads of States. He has to constantly bolster his position through launches of ballistic missiles of different ranges. His attitude towards foreigners is that they should come to Pyongyang and kowtow and negotiate. But they refuse to do so.”

Understanding Kim Jong Un’s position, means understanding the legacy of colonialism in the region. Dr. Petrov explains: “N. Korea itself is a remnant of Cold War confrontation, and it is not just North and South Korea which is divided, but the whole of the region. There are no peace treaties, there are territorial disputes about international borders; some countries refuse to recognize each other, even though they have been represented in the UN for the last half century. What happened between North and South Korea is often recognized as a continuing war which started even before N. Korea attacked the South in 1950. Korea did not exist for 35 or 36 years when it was under Japanese colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th century; Japan was not only a problem for the Koreans but for the Chinese as well and there was an intention to unify [by Japan] the region against westerners. Now what North Koreas are doing is an attempt to replicate the Japanese Imperial Culture, when Japan was projecting itself as the leading force against western imperialism in the region. N. Korea is projecting itself as the bulwark of freedom and democracy against [what it perceives] western corrupt militaristic intentions to rule the world. We see that even Marxism-Leninism didn’t survive in N. Korea and was replaced by the so called ‘Juche’ self-reliance ideology which basically insists that N. Korea give up any attempt to integrate into the world economic system. N. Korea survived the collapse of the communist bloc, and did not suffer from the global, financial or Asian financial crises.”

As regards how the problem should be solved, Dr. Petrov suggests that we, the West should stop deceiving itself, and see that a country which has developed a nuclear weapon cannot undo its scientific progress. “Even if N. Korea were to dismantle its weapons it would be impossible to verify that N. Korea doesn’t have hidden away in the mountains somewhere a device or two, or a blueprint of a bomb with a couple of scientists who could recreate it within weeks. The only solution to this is what N. Korea is suggesting — a nuclear free world. This of course is impossible, but what the N. Korean leadership is suggesting is a comprehensive ban on nuclear warhead testing….They learnt the lesson of Libya; they understand that only with strong military deterrence they can ensure the survival of their regime. This is the most important thing for Kim Jong Un and his family and the 10,000 families around him who are loyal and supportive of the regime.”

I believe Kim Jong Un is a gift to President Trump, every time he launches something, people get distracted from what is going on in Washington DC….N. Korea and the US are locked into inter-dependence. The US needs a paper tiger. N. Korea is a small country which has nuclear weapons which cannot yet be mounted on rockets, but which definitely pose a threat to S. Korea, and other allies of the US, including Australia, who now feel the need to buy more sophisticated weapons to protect themselves against N. Korea, and the US is very willing to offer these very expensive and sophisticated anti-missile systems. ”

We appear to have underestimated Kim Jong Sun, probably we have never really tried. “The leaders of the countries that surround N. Korea all need Kim Jong Un for one reason or another; Kim Jong Un is keeping the show going. The region is paranoid, the region is really insecure, the region constantly lives in fear of war, and everyone understands that if there is a major shift in the balance of threat in N. Korea, it would open the gates to a tsunami of changes which may lead to a major shift in the balance of power, not only on the Korean peninsula but between China and Russia and the United States, which might start competing for geopolitical influence in the region.”

Listen to the full interview here…





North Korea’s 70th anniversary parade suggests little change in policy

11 10 2015

KJU-Oct-10-2015-parade(NKnews.com 10.10.2015) Parade demonstrates party commitment to nation’s defense, shows off some newer equipment.

North Korea stands ready to fight any war with the United States and its armed forces are now so strong that the country has become a global military power, leader Kim Jong Un said at major anniversary event on Saturday.

But despite the strident tone of his speech, North Korea refrained from carrying out anticipated missile tests to coincide with the event, held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK), or a satellite launch that many observers had expected earlier in the year.

“Our revolutionary forces are capable of dealing with any kind of war being waged by the U.S.,” Kim said during a 25-minute address prior to the military parade.

“Through the line of Songun (military-first) politics, our Korean People’s Army has become the strongest revolutionary force and our country has become an impenetrable fortress and a global military power,” he continued.

MILITARY PARADE

Following Kim’s speech a widely anticipated military parade kicked off, featuring formations of soldiers in various KPA uniforms – including historic versions – among the first to pass by the reviewing stand in Kim Il Sung Square.

Being a commemorative event, the approximately two hour parade featured old equipment as well as new, including the T-34 tank, a model which was used in the Korean War.

At various points during the parade, light aircraft flew above Kim Il Sung Square in formations, including CJ-6s depicting emblem of the WPK and An-2s depicting the number 70.

Among the artillery in the parade were self-propelled multiple rocket launchers (MRL) of various calibers including 107mm MRLs, 122mm MRLs, 240mm MRLs, and the previously unseen (though known to exist due to test firings) 300mm MRLs.

Other self-propelled field artillery included 122mm howitzers, 152mm gun-howitzers, and 170mm Koksan guns.

The parade featured several armored personnel carriers such as the BTR-60 and M-2010 and tanks such as the Type-59, Chonma-ho, and Pokpung-ho. Notably, there was a lack of any towed artillery in the parade, perhaps intentionally so in order to present an image of a more mobile and rapidly deployable force.

The only unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, a.k.a “drone”) featured in the parade was a previously seen, indigenously produced UAV believed to be based on the American MQM-107. The designation of this UAV, which is mounted on ZIL-130 trucks, is unknown.

Following the UAVs were Kumsong-1 (a.k.a. KN-01) surface-to-ship missiles.

Three different surface-to-air missiles (SAM) were featured in the parade including the S-125 (NATO reporting name SA-3) and S-200 (NATO reporting name SA-5) and the KN-06, a North Korean version of the Russian S-300.

The parade also featured ballistic missiles such as the Scud (Hwasong-5/6), the Rodong-A, the Rodong-B (BM-25 Musudan), and what appears to be a new version of the KN-08 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM).

Following the missiles, the parade ended with a military band marching in formation to spell out the word “victory” (seungri) and Su-25 ground attack aircraft flying overhead with colored smoke trails.

CHINESE THAW?

The attendance of China’s No. 5 leader Liu Yunshan at the parade further suggested a thawing of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, him being the most senior Chinese visitor to Pyongyang since Kim came to power.

Video of the parade on Saturday showed Kim and Liu standing shoulder to shoulder on a viewing platform overlooking Kim Il Sung square, frequently talking and laughing among themselves.

Chinese state media said Liu brought Kim a message on Friday from President Xi Jinping, extending congratulations and best wishes from Beijing to Pyongyang to commemorate the 70th anniversary.

Notably, Kim Jong Un did not mention North Korea’s signature “Byungjin” policy of simultaneously pursuing economic and nuclear weapons development, something some analysts suggested Saturday could be in respect of Liu’s presence. China is opposed to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

The prime-position presence of Liu at the event stood in stark contrast to the distant positioning of a North Korean delegation at recent Victory Day anniversary celebrations in Beijing.

At that September 3 event, which Kim Jong Un did not attend, DPRK envoy Choe Ryong Hae stood watching the parade over 40 people away from President Xi. South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye stood adjacent to Xi, reflecting the increasingly close ties between the two countries.

Dr. Leonid Petrov, a North Korea researcher at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, told NK News the parade emphasized the regime’s rule and military policy, rather than any hopes of changing inter-Korean relations which were evident in another recent event.

CEREMONY & SYMBOLISM

This parade appears to have emphasized not only the current state of the DPRK’s military technical capability, showcasing much of its newer equipment, but also the role of the party in fighting for and defending the country – both historically and presently – and the party’s leadership in military affairs.

“KJU’s speech and today’s military parade were to convince people inside and outside of the DPRK that after the 70 years of dictatorship and militarism nothing is going to change,” Petrov told NK News.

“The country will remain an ‘impenetrable fortress’ and its perpetual conflict with ‘American imperialists’ will continue,” said Petrov, paraphrasing Kim. “It would have been much more memorable if KJU had repeated what he had apparently told the visiting Chinese envoy, Liu Yunshan: namely, that he wants to improve relations with South Korea.”





Isolated Kim Relies on Old North Korea Tensions Playbook

28 08 2015

One Korea_One enormous challenge (By Sam Kim and David Tweed, Bloomberg News, August 25, 2015) SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s military standoff against South Korea, with his threats to annihilate the government in Seoul, was not just about the loudspeakers blasting propaganda and K-pop tunes over the demilitarized zone.

Rather, the events that took tensions on the peninsula to their highest level since the aftermath of North Korea’s nuclear test in early 2013 reflected Kim’s efforts to control how ties between countries in North Asia are evolving.

The young dictator, who came to power in late 2011, is looking isolated. Kim’s nuclear ambitions and his unwillingness to take guidance from Beijing have irritated China and strained ties with Pyongyang’s traditional ally. South Korean President Park Geun-hye enjoys a rapport with President Xi Jinping and is inching toward improved ties with Japan.

Faced with a dilapidated economy and drought at home, and potentially pressured by senior officers in his military to show some mettle, Kim resorted to an old North Korean playbook — pick a fight to force concessions from South Korea on trade and aid. It’s also a warning to Park against taking North Korea lightly in her dealings with China, Japan and the United States, all of whom have urged Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons program.

“This is more than a loudspeaker issue,” said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “In the end this could be Kim’s outreach strategy. Maybe they think the South hasn’t been responding enough, so provoked a crisis to get to this stage.”

The stakes are high for Kim. He has a series of upcoming anniversaries where he must prove he’s worthy of commanding North Korea’s 1.2 million troops. Economic woes facing his 24 million people are unlikely to ease soon, while North Korea’s increasingly porous border with China means ordinary people have greater access to electronics and news of life outside the reclusive country.

In the end, both leaders gave some ground after days of high-level talks among negotiators at a border village — and both can probably claim a victory. The regime in Pyongyang agreed to lift its “semi-state of war” and expressed regret over landmine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers, while Seoul said it’d stop the propaganda broadcasts.

Risks remain, and Kim faces the challenge of a more strident Park in the face of any further provocations.

“The question is will the dialog stick? That will be harder because there is going to be some kind of crisis that tests this in relative short order,” said John Delury, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, citing the potential for skirmishes on the maritime border or over the demarcation line.

Since Park’s government said last week it traded fire with North Korea across the demilitarized zone, her approval rating has risen. Even as the tensions roiled South Korea’s financial markets she said Monday she would not stop pressuring Kim.

“The broadcasts play to particular parts of her support base, particularly the Christian right and the nationalist right,” said Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor of Asian affairs at the Australian National University in Canberra, of the South Korean leader who passes the half-way mark of her five-year tenure on Tuesday.

On the same day Kim marks the day of “Songun,” a military-first philosophy chartered by his late father Kim Jong Il. In less than two months he’ll celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party as he seeks to promote himself as a shrewd politician and tough military tactician.

“This is a very important commemorative year for Kim Jong Un,” Lee Sung-yoon, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University, said by email. “The young Kim has a compelling need to mark it with a bang, as he did in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birthday, when North Korea was miraculously to become a powerful and prosperous country.”

Kim can’t afford to look weak. Since taking power he’s conducted a series of purges to root out potential threats.

“His spate of high-level executions shows a high degree of frustration that his policies are not being implemented to his satisfaction,” Patrick Cronin, senior adviser for the Asia- Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said in an email.

The country is suffering chronic food shortages. North Korea said earlier this year it had been in the worst drought in a hundred years and the United Nations said in June that was worsening food-security concerns in the country.

“They’re facing a poor harvest, so this could be a way to divert people’s attention to patriotism and jingoism that wouldn’t be necessary had there been plentiful crops,” said Leonid Petrov, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra. “Kim knows he cannot offer much to his population other than superficial window dressing. He has to use the same methods his father and grandfather did.”





Security Implications of Kim Jong Un’s Leadership Consolidation for Korea and Beyond

1 12 2014

LP interview with AIIA ACT_2014.05.05The public lecture, “Security Implications of Kim Jong Un’s Leadership Consolidation for Korea and Beyond”, was given at Australian Institute of International Affairs in Canberra on 05 May 2014.

Here the short interview with Dr. Leonid Petrov before the lecture.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xALSH5O0t4E





Kim Jong Un’s absence: coup or cooped up?

13 10 2014

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????(By Belinda Cranston, ANU, 10 OCT 2014) Why hasn’t Kim Jong Un been seen for 37 days? All sorts of conspiracy theories abound. Are ankle problems the reason the North Korean leader is lying low, as reported by the hermit kingdom’s officials? Or is something more sinister at stake, like a coup?

It was hoped that all would be revealed on Friday, when celebrations marking the 69th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party begin in Pyongyang.

The occasion would normally see the supreme leader on the podium of Kim Il-Sung Square, greeting a parade of workers and peasants passing by. But the North Korean leader has apparently missed this key political event.

Speaking before the event, North Korea expert Dr Leonid Petrov, from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, said, “it will probably look more suspicious than ever if he doesn’t appear.”

Footage of Kim in North Korean media a couple of months ago showed the North Korean dictator limping.

At an occasion to mark the 61st anniversary of the end of the Korean War, on 27 July, he was unusually subdued, fuelling rumours he had suffered a stroke.

“If he did survive a minor stroke, maybe his left side is a bit affected by that,” Petrov said.

Kim is also said to have suffered diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

When he failed to show on 9 September for National Day commemorations, the rumour mill went into overdrive.

If an injury required a major operation, it was possible Kim was recovering in a wheel chair, a look he would not want to sport for fear of being perceived as weak, Petrov suggested.

It is also possible Kim is afraid of assassination. Late last year he reportedly arranged for his uncle’s execution, because he feared he was disloyal to the North Korean regime.

This year’s release of the American film, The Interview, a comedy about journalists on an undercover mission to assassinate Kim, has further fuelled rumours Kim fears for his life.

Petrov isn’t convinced, noting Kim’s many public appearances in the first part of 2014.

In early January, visiting former-US basketball star Dennis Rodman sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim, publicly cementing the unusual friendship between the two.

But the North Korean leader didn’t show during Rodman’s third visit to North Korea.

“That shows that he is getting a bit cautious about his meetings and public appearances,” Petrov added.

Without Kim or his family in power, the North Korean regime would probably struggle.

“The system would need to find some sort of figure head to replace him,” Petrov said.

His sister Kim Yo-jong is rumoured to be now running the show, but Petrov isn’t convinced she is, given North Korea’s perception of women.

“Women are not supposed to occupy the central position in power politics,” he said.

What of other rumours, like Kim being under house arrest or even dead?

Until Kim makes an appearance soon, Petrov believes the most likely scenario is that the North Korean dictator is unwell.

“Maybe incapacitated. Yes, it is possible, he may have had a stroke and is in bad shape.”

This article is from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific





Kim Jong Un, out of sight for 37 days, is a no-show at ceremony

11 10 2014

North Koreans on 10.10.2014 (By STEVEN BOROWIEC, Seoul, 10 October 2014) Speculation over the health and whereabouts of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un grew Friday after he apparently did not attend ceremonies marking an important national holiday. The young head of the reclusive country has not appeared in public since he was seen at a concert Sept. 3.

Oct. 10 is the anniversary of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party, and in his first two years in power, Kim marked the occasion by making midnight visits to the mausoleum in the capital, Pyongyang, where the bodies of his father and grandfather, both former leaders, are kept in state.

But in its reports on the holiday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency did not make any mention of Kim, believed to be 31, participating in events. He also missed a celebration for Foundation Day on Sept. 9, another important holiday on the North Korean calendar.

“Today was a crucial day for him to return. More and more questions are mounting and his absence inevitably leads to uncertainty about who’s leading the country,” said Leonid Petrov, a researcher in Korean studies at Australian National University.

Kim is overweight and has become noticeably heavier since he came to power in December 2011. He is a smoker and reputedly has tastes for liquor and high-calorie food.

Earlier this year, he was filmed walking with a noticeable limp at a state function, and in a rare admission of vulnerability, North Korea’s official media reported in late September that he was struggling with unspecified physical “discomfort.”

On Friday, an unnamed source told Reuters that a leg injury was keeping Kim out of public view. The source said Kim pulled a tendon after joining a military drill he had been inspecting.

On Oct. 4, a delegation of senior North Korean figures, believed to be the most powerful officials in the country after Kim, made an unexpected visit to South Korea to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. They borrowed Kim’s plane for the trip, and Kim’s regards were reportedly conveyed to South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Analysts have said that in North Korea’s totalitarian system, such a trip could not have gone ahead without the top leader’s approval.

Though Kim is young and far less experienced than the men of his father’s generation who make up the government’s top ranks, he has the unmatchable legitimacy of being part of the ruling Kim bloodline as grandson to founding leader Kim Il Sung.

His uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek, was widely considered North Korea’s second most powerful figure and a possible threat to Kim’s control, until Jang was suddenly purged and executed last year. Jang’s ouster was carried out in an unusually visible manner, with him being handcuffed and dragged out of a large meeting, possibly as an implicit warning to anyone else in North Korea with ambitions of building power to challenge Kim’s control of the country.

Though Kim’s prolonged absence has spurred rumors of a power struggle in Pyongyang, there is no clear sign that a serious challenge to his rule has emerged. On Friday, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, its body for relations with the North, said in a briefing that, according to the South Korean government’s intelligence, Kim’s rule has not been disrupted.

“There’s no sign of any political upheaval in Pyongyang. Just the opposite, all the evidence shows that things are going along normally,” said John Delury, a North Korea watcher at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Still, the extended absence is out of character for Kim, who has been a highly visible leader whose moves are usually closely reported in the North Korean state media. “This is very unusual for Kim Jong Un, as he’s been this hyperactive young leader who tries to show that he’s involved in everything that’s going on,” said Adam Cathcart, a lecturer of East Asian history at the University of Leeds.

Though Kim’s absence is unusual for him, it’s not unheard of in the history of North Korea’s ruling dynasty. His father, Kim Jong Il, who died in late 2011, regularly did not appear in public for months at a time, often due to his deteriorating health.

Also Friday, South Korea’s military announced that North Korea fired machine guns at activists in South Korea who were releasing balloons filled with propaganda leaflets over the border.

A source in the South Korean military, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity, said no casualties or damage occurred, and that the South did not return fire but fired warning shots and broadcast a message over loudspeakers imploring the North to refrain from firing.

The balloons are usually filled with leaflets critical of the North Korean government, as well as socks and chocolate snacks. Pyongyang routinely objects to such criticism, and has recently called on the South Korean government to take action to prevent the activists, often North Korean refugees, from sending the balloons. Seoul has responded that it cannot prevent the release of the leaflets because they represent free speech.