As a North Korean (in exile), the recent developments in North Korea that have been communicated by colleagues in the country lead to a conclusion that is shocking for me beyond words can describe. What we all took to be an immutable fact of life in North Korea no longer holds: our country is no longer ruled by a Kim.
The DPRK may tirelessly trumpet its system of ‘absolute guidance’ centred on Kim Jong-un; but I have seen much that suggests otherwise, and have now had it articulated by colleagues in Pyongyang – and nothing could have astonished me more than to hear them put it in their own words – that ‘Kim Jong-un is a puppet who is being controlled by the elite’.
‘This North Korea of today is not the North Korea you used to live in’. On the first occasion I heard those words spoken by a North Korean from inside North Korea, a shiver ran through my body. Colleagues in Pyongyang describe a North Korean state that is being run by several invisible hands.
To put it more specifically, an inner circle of elite, with its focal point in the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), has now cemented itself as the collective leadership of North Korea. In effect, they have anointed Kim Jong-un as the nominal leader, while they themselves rule from behind in Kim Jong-un’s name.
Kim Jong-un may have wished to rely on Jang Song-thaek for his rule, alongside those others designated by Kim Jong-il as eternally loyal to his legacy. Nevertheless, the OGD was able to isolate and purge Jang Song-thaek; and ultimately, to swiftly execute the ruling Kim’s own uncle.
This inner elite has at its core OGD first deputy directors Kim Kyong-ok, Cho Yon-jun, Hwang Pyong-so, and Ministry of State Security (MSS) director Kim Won-hong. From there outwards, as according to OGD tradition, those who have trusted and close relationships to the centre are entrusted with power throughout different sectors and branches.
It is worth noting that figures such as Choe Ryong-hae and O Geuk-ryol – whose prestige has long been paramount due to their intimate and entangled personal histories with Kim Jong-il’s rise to power – have not been included in this group.
These two men, who held the rare distinction of forming a part of Kim Jong-il’s inner circle in spite of their close associations with Kim Il-sung’s heritage of anti-Japanese resistance, have been excluded from the power consolidation of the OGD in the Kim Jong-un era.
Similarly, the DPRK may be placing great emphasis on the motif of the ‘Paekdu bloodline’ in an attempt to symbolise the hereditary legitimacy of Kim Jong-un without drawing too much attention to the motif of the ‘anti-Japanese bloodline’.
The overall picture is that in the wake of Jang Song-thaek’s purge, the configuration of power in North Korea – which had been in a state of factional fragmentation – is being systemically overhauled with the OGD as pivot.
Ri Yong-nam, who is the son of deceased OGD first deputy director Ri Jae-gang and served as the party secretary of the North Korean embassy in Moscow, has been recalled to Pyongyang. It is thought that he will follow in the family line and take on significant responsibilities in the OGD.
Pak Tae-song and Ri Jong-chan, who were very close to OGD first deputy director Kim Kyong-ok in the days of Ri Jae-gang’s leadership of the OGD, may join Ri Yong-nam in similar roles.
Pushed to the periphery of power by Jang Song-thaek, Pak Tae-song and Ri Jong-chan had served in sectors related to economic policy. But with Jang Song-thaek gone, the two men have gained much standing.
The family line of Ri Yong-chol, who served as OGD first deputy director for military affairs, has also been elevated with the purge of Jang Song-thaek. Ri Yong-chol’s son is dead, but his daughter Ri Yong-ran has resigned from her role at a foreign trade company and is preparing for a Party leadership role.
Relatives of Cho Yon-jun and Hwang Pyong-so have found themselves in similarly advantageous positions. The children of OGD leadership families and of those closest to them are likely to receive relevant appointments at the next session of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
It is due to the significant clout of this collective inner elite that cadres are not behaving with due conformity in Kim Jong-un’s presence. Not only is state television showing Kim Jong-un in situations that are not perfectly composed, the elite are actually said to be taking pride at this erosion of the centrality of the ruling Kim’s authority.
Kim Jong-un’s revealing of personal information related to the Kim family to Rodman on his first visit to the country was allegedly used as an excuse to delay Rodman’s next visit, and to limit Kim Jong-un’s subsequent interactions with Rodman; ‘suggestions’ to Kim Jong-un made by the OGD are much more than that, with even propaganda relating to the ‘absolute guidance’ of Kim Jong-un serving a rule-by-terror led by the OGD.
The atmosphere is such that of the many Party Committees nationwide, not many would dare take initiative on a project without first obtaining explicit authorization from an OGD ‘guidance’ branch. First party secretaries, who represent the Party at institutional levels but must still receive ‘guidance’ from an organizational secretary at the lowest Party cell level to which they belong, are said to be under heightened mutual surveillance.
Alongside this development, the Ministry of State Security has seen its influence rise to the extent that it can order an arrest for the smallest mistakes on the ironic charge of ‘Kim Jong-un’s absolute guidance having been infringed’.
Moreover, cadres are now offering bows to a right-angle – previously reserved exclusively for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il – to those holding the rank of supervisor or above in the OGD. This is a development of utmost significance: anyone receiving such a bow during Kim Jong-il’s rule would have been reported and purged immediately for the corruption of ‘individualism’; and this development has not gone unnoticed by those in Pyongyang.
The OGD is putting constant emphasis on the ‘side-branch’ notion in propaganda alongside the message of the ‘absolute guidance’ of Kim Jong-un. And the argument is that ‘side-branch’ Jang Song-thaek committed an anti-Party and anti-revolutionary crime because he was not pruned, and thus able to take advantage of Kim Jong-il’s magnanimity.
But with many in North Korea still unaware that Kim Jong-un has an older brother, the question is frequently heard regarding who this side-branch might be, with Jang Song-thaek already dead. Within the OGD, the ‘side-branch’ designation has as its internal referents Kim Jong-chol and Ri Sol-ju, with the PAD prohibited from promoting Ri Sol-ju as the ‘mother of Chosun’.
The following is a summary of what North Korea’s senior cadres are saying discreetly among themselves with regard to Jang Song-thaek’s execution:
[Right up to the enlarged Politburo meeting that criticised Jang Song-thaek, focused criticisms of Jang Song-thaek were conducted in the manner of ideological debates, and dealt only with ‘proofs of Jang Song-thaek’s deviation from absolute guidance and of his factional acts’; but in the Politburo verdict released in Rodong Sinmun on the following day, the charge of an ‘anti-Party and anti-revolutionary act’ was added; the MSS instigated severe interrogations based on this ‘evidence’, in which Jang Song-thaek apparently confessed of his plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un; Jang Song-thaek pleaded to meet with Kim Jong-un in person in order to conduct self-criticism, but Kim Jong-un ordered for Jang Song-thaek to be sent to a political prison camp on seeing the video of Jang’s statement; at which point cadres unanimously invoked for the ‘Supreme Leader’s absolute guidance’ to be upheld and Jang Song-thaek was swiftly executed.]
At the moment, all policy proposals by Party, military or government institutions are being routed through the OGD just as in the past. But whereas previously it was the proposal alone that was sent through the OGD, now the author of the proposal is required to visit the OGD building in person and make an argument for their case. Central Party Headquarters No.1, where the OGD is headquartered, is seeing a constant stream of cadres competing with one another for an audience with the OGD leadership.