The unconfirmed reports of a deadly shootout between rival military groups in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang that circulated online last week are unlikely to be true, Western and Russian analysts agree.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported on Friday, citing unidentified intelligence sources, that “20 to 30 soldiers” had died when the North Korean regime removed army chief Ri Yong-ho from office on the orders of new leader Kim Jong-un earlier this month.
Chosun Ilbo speculated that Kim Jong-un, at just under 30 the world’s youngest head of state, had seen the powerful army chief as a threat and his move was part of a power struggle that erupted into violence when soldiers arrived to detain Ri Yong-ho.
Kim Jong-un was installed as the leader of North Korea late last year after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who had ruled the isolated, nuclear-armed state since 1994. Kim Jong-il’s “songun” - or military first - policies resulted in a massive increase in the influence of the security forces.
Analysts have long supposed that any regime change in North Korea will be led from the top and that there is next to no chance of an Arab Spring type uprising in a country where the Internet is banned for ordinary people, propaganda is all pervasive and strict controls on internal travel ensure a passive, powerless population.
“The story about a shootout comes from the Chosun Ilbo, which has a record of running wild stories giving unnamed intelligence sources as the originators,” Jim Hoare, British chargé d'affaires in North Korea in 2001-02, told RIA Novosti.
Russian Academy of Sciences North Korea expert Alexander Zhebin agreed that the there was unlikely to be much substance to the rumors, suggesting they could be the work of Seoul-based analysts “looking to earn their keep.”
“In North Korea, with its leadership, things like this just don’t happen,” said Zhebin, who spent 12 years in North Korea as a Soviet journalist.
“It’s well-known that revolutions begin at the top and in South Korea and other countries they would very much like to see a split in the Ministry of Defense or Chief of Staff that could lead to destabilization of the situation. But this has not happened in North Korea.”
Other experts said that rumors were predictable as the country went through a period of change after almost two decades with Kim Jong-il at the helm.
“This is a time of anticipated transition in North Korea, as seen in the week's senior military shuffle of leaders, so we should be prepared for many rumors and occasionally true reports of conflict,” said Douglas H. Paal, North Korea expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Much more would need to be known and verified to take the reports seriously,” he added. “[But] a coup cannot be ruled out in a regime so heavily militarized. It would not show signs of coming beforehand.”
Zhebin was certain, however, that North Korea would not see a coup in the foreseeable future.
“There will be no coup – everyone there is in the same boat and they understand that they will all share the same fate in the event of any internal disorder,” he said.