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.
Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012
May 2, 2013
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains one of the United States’ most critical security challenges in Northeast Asia. North Korea remains a security threat because of its willingness to undertake provocative and destabilizing behavior, including attacks on the Republic of Korea (ROK), its pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, and its willingness to proliferate weapons in contravention of its international agreements and United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
North Korean aspiration for reunification – attainable in its mind in part by expelling U.S. forces from the Peninsula – and its commitment to perpetuating the Kim family regime are largely unchanged since the nation’s founding in 1948, but its strategies to achieve these goals have evolved significantly. Under Kim Jong Il, DPRK strategy had been focused on internal security; coercive diplomacy to compel acceptance of its diplomatic, economic and security interests; development of strategic military capabilities to deter external attack; and challenging the ROK and the U.S.-ROK Alliance. We anticipate these strategic goals will be consistent under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un.
North Korea fields a large, forward-deployed military that retains the capability to inflict serious damage on the ROK, despite significant resource shortfalls and aging hardware. The DPRK continues to be deterred from conducting attacks on the ROK largely because of the strength of the U.S.-ROK Alliance. On a smaller scale, however, the DPRK has demonstrated its willingness to use military provocation to achieve national goals, such as in 2010 when it sank the ROK naval vessel CHEONAN, killing 46 ROK Navy sailors, and shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two ROK Marines and two civilians.
North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear technology and capabilities and development of long-range ballistic missile programs, as reflected in the December 2012 Taepo Dong 2 missile launch and April 2012 display of a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, underscores the threat to regional stability and U.S. national security posed by North Korea. These programs, as well as North Korea’s expressed hostility toward the ROK and proliferation of items prohibited under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874, and 2087 make the DPRK a continued security challenge for the United States and its Allies and partners.
North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013 and its 2010 revelation of a uranium enrichment facility highlight the continued challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear programs. Both the September 19 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks and United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874, and 2087 call for the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea. Given North Korea’s unwillingness to abide by these commitments, the Department of Defense will continue to manage the North Korean security challenge through close coordination and consultation with the international community, particularly with our ROK and Japanese Allies.
The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korea’s continued provocations and steadfast in commitments to Allies in the region, including the security provided by extended deterrence commitments through both the nuclear umbrella and conventional forces.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN NORTH KOREAN AND PENINSULAR SECURITY
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has stated that it is entering what it calls “the door in a strong and prosperous nation” in 2012. The transfer of power to Kim Jong Un, after the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, has shaped the internal political landscape of North Korea and its international relations. In April 2012, Kim Jong Un assumed top-level positions in the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) and the National Defense Commission, formalizing his role as the North’s top leader.
Yet North Korea continues to fall behind the rising national power of its regional neighbors, creating a widening military disparity and fueling its commitment to improving asymmetric and strategic deterrent capabilities as the primary guarantor of regime survival.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have grown as relations between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK) worsened through 2011 and remained uneasy through mid-2012. The DPRK’s frustration with the ROK’s close policy coordination with the United States and its linkage of assistance to the North to progress in denuclearization grew over the past five years of President Lee Myung-bak, and is unlikely to change significantly under the tenure of President Park Geun-hye.
NORTH KOREAN SECURITY PERCEPTIONS
North Korean threat perceptions are shaped by a legacy of guerilla warfare dating back to its anti–colonial struggle against the Japanese, political and economic isolation, experience during wartime, and a political culture that is defined by an unending existential struggle with outside forces. North Korea has portrayed the ROK and the United States as constant threats to North Korea’s sovereignty, in a probable attempt to legitimize and justify the Kim family rule, its draconian internal control mechanisms, and its existing strategies as the best defense against encroachments on the North’s sovereignty.
The regime’s greatest security concern is opposition from within, and outside forces – primarily South Korea – taking advantage of internal instability to topple the regime and achieve unification of the Korean Peninsula. In North Korea’s view, the destruction of regimes such as Ceausescu, Hussain, and Qadhafi was not an inevitable consequence of repressive governments, but rather a failure to secure the necessary capabilities to defend their respective autocratic regime’s survival.