‘Follow the leader’ in North jump-starts careers

Joong Ang Ilbo

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has maintained his power since the death in 1994 of his father, Kim Il Sung, the communist country’s founder. A recent study showed that following in the footsteps and shadow of Kim Jong-il is the key to becoming a member of the reclusive regime’s elite. It pays to be a general as well, and being a member of Mr. Kim’s family by birth or marriage doesn’t hurt either.

The JoongAng Ilbo and Cyram, a specialist institute in social network analysis, studied the career backgrounds of the North’s 50 most influential figures after Mr. Kim and compared what took to become a member of that elite in 1994 and in 2006. The earlier ranking of the elite was based on the seating chart for Kim Il Sung’s funeral in 1994, a de facto ranking of its official hierarchy. That list was compared to a new 2006 list created as a result of the study.

For the new list, profiles of North Korean officials from the National Intelligence Service and the Unification Ministry were analyzed. The study also took account of seating charts and other rankings announced by Pyongyang last year to compile a list of the top 50 officials after Mr. Kim.

The study showed that in 1994, 29 of the 51 top leaders were members of the politburo, or executive organization, of the Workers’ Party. By last year, however, only eight of the 50 top officials were members.

“Since 1993, vacancies in the politburo after officials there died, were executed or defected have not been filled,” a South Korean intelligence official said. “Since then, the politburo has lost some of its power and the secretariat of the party has gained in influence.”

If a career with the party’s politburo no longer is a fast track to the elite group, it has been replaced by a military background as a way to the top. Among the top 50 figures on the 2006 list, 33 had career military experience, up from 21 in 1994. Of the 33 people, 14 worked with the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and 10 were from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A clear reflection of Mr. Kim’s “military first” policy, that favoritism toward the generals was also reflected in the number of visits he made to military units to boost their morale. Of the 192 site inspections by Mr. Kim in 2002, 34 were visits to military units. Last year, he conducted 104 inspections, and 65 were to meet with soldiers.

“Mr. Kim has emphasized a military-style governance in which the chain of command is clear, and military figures have been favored in his regime,” said Chon Hyun-joon, a senior researcher with the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Working on the National Defense Commission, headed by Mr. Kim, is probably the fastest way to join the power circle in the North these days, because it has taken over a lot of the influence that shifted first from the party politburo to the secretariat. The commission was established in 1972, and currently has seven members, including Mr. Kim, whose title is chairman of the group. After the North’s Constitution was revised in 1998, the commission became the nation’s highest governing body and the office of president, from whence Kim Il Sung governed, was retired.

Jon Byong-ho, for example, is ranked No. 5 on the new elite list (the ranking begins with Kim Jong-il in position No. 1. He is a member of the commission and the party’s military industry department director. He has worked there since 1990, when Kim Jong-il became the commission’s first vice chairman. “The core of the power clearly moved from the Workers Party’s politburo to the National Defense Commission, and the commission is a “must” ticket to punch for success,” said Kim Geun-sik, a North Korea-watcher at Kyungnam University.

Following the footsteps of Kim Jong-il can certainly help an ambitious North Korean’s career. Mr. Kim joined the organization and guidance department of the Workers’ Party in 1964, and worked in the propaganda and agitation bureau, the secretariat and the politburo on his way to the top. In the 1990s, he became the commander-in-chief of the North’s military and the chairman of the National Defense Commission, cementing his control over the military and the party.

According to the study, many people who have followed Mr. Kim’s career path have joined the North’s power elite. Those who served in the party’s organization and guidance department and the propaganda and agitation department are especially prominent.

Ri Je-gang, for example, followed a career path similar to Mr. Kim’s, and ranks 35th on the list. Mr. Ri participated in a Pyongyang city redevelopment project in the 1980s led by Mr. Kim, and earned the future North Korean leader’s trust. Jang Song-thaek, Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law, worked in the party’s organization and guidance department for 13 years. Kim Kuk-tae, the Workers’ Party secretary, is Mr. Kim’s Kim Il Sung university fellow alumnus, and he also served in the propaganda bureau with Mr. Kim.

The study also showed that there was a clear generational shift in the North’s power circle. During the Kim Il Sung era, an anti-Japanese guerrilla background was a prime resume-polisher for people who wanted to join the elite group. On the 1994 list, for example, seven were partisan fighters, but time has taken its toll. The 2006 list had only one such figure, Jo Myong-rok.

But links to that revolutionary glory are still present. “The children of the partisan fighters are enjoying the status of power elites in the North in their generation,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University. Part of the reason is the educational privileges they were given. Only children of “fighters for the revolution,” a title bestowed on former partisans, are allowed to study at the prestigious Mangyongdae Revolutionary School.

The number of that school’s alumni on the list of the North’s highest-ranking officials grew from 10 in 1994 to 14 last year.


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