Inside the DPRK’s ruling elite

“Inside North Korea’s Ruling Elite”
Aidan Foster-Carter
January 2003

As the international community struggles to find an appropriate response to North Korea’s moves to restart its nuclear programme, the questions of how key decisions are reached, and who by, have become of paramount importance. The received opinion is that “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is the omnipotent and omniscient genius responsible for everything – as was his father before him, the DPRK’s founding Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Pyongyang’s ineffable media endlessly praise the greatness of these two. Lesser figures, by contrast, remain in the shadows or shine only with reflected glory: success is due to following the leader loyally. Yet it misleads to take this at face value.

By all accounts Kim Jong-il is an active micro-manager. (He is nocturnal, too, and waiting for his midnight faxes causes much anxious ministerial insomnia.) He insists on being the node and centre of many separate chains of command. As in the spokes of a bicycle wheel, these are all linked to the hub yet have minimal lateral contact with one another.

Like his late father, but less energetically, the Dear Leader is also given to “on the spot guidance”: visiting all manner of places and making free with “expert” advice which of course cannot be ignored.

But this is not the whole picture. The public spectacle and personality cult serve to mask a more private sphere: one of smoke-filled rooms, where a few men (and a very few women) grapple with the political, economic, and military choices which confront all states, even those blessed by the Juche philosophy. Moreover, the choices are growing harder and starker, not least between war and peace and between market reform and further stagnation. North Korea cannot feed itself, and its economy lies in tatters. Now even its old allies, Russia and China, have joined the chorus of foes urging it to end its renewed nuclear programme.

So, even if Kim Jong-il is the ultimate decision maker (and even this cannot be accepted with absolute certainty), there are important questions about in what forums, formal or informal, policies are discussed and decisions made, and about who aids him – whether with policy input, advice, chewing the fat, or even daring to disagree. Who, in a word, are North Korea’s power elite, and do their minds really move as one? Or are there – as in any political system – divisions, perhaps profound ones, which could precipitate power struggles or even potential conflict?

Needless to say, no definitive answer to such questions is possible. As with much else, North Korea has succeeded in keeping its politics well hidden. If anything, things have grown more opaque over time (glasnost in reverse), especially under Kim Jong-il, when even the already minimal due process – for example the brief annual meeting of a rubber-stamp parliament to pass the budget – ceased. In 1998 the state apparatus was overhauled, the constitution revised, and normal service resumed, after a fashion. Yet the officially ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) remains in limbo, with no sign that its Politburo or Central Committee have even met since the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994; nor has it held a full Congress since 1980, when Kim Jong-il was proclaimed as successor.

The Dear Leader has scant regard for formalities, ruling instead via a kitchen cabinet of trusted cronies, the most important of whom is his brother-in-law Jang Song-thaek. Meanwhile a third estate, the military, has risen to rival the usual communist party-state dyad.

Rise of a dynasty

It helps to know how North Korea got this way. In 1945 the young ex-guerrilla Kim Il-sung came home in Soviet uniform. Moscow’s support and his own ruthless skills helped him kill off rivals, including three other communist factions: local, Soviet-Korean, and pro-China. The last overt challenge to him was in 1956, and thereafter his Kapsan (partisan) faction monopolized power. Most of today’s Pyongyang elite are descended from, or have married into, this group.

As medieval history east and west attests, dynasties have their own internecine strife. Kim Il-sung’s first choice as heir was his younger brother Kim Yong-ju, who vanished in the 1970s but resurfaced on the Politburo in 1993: a hint that Kim Jong-il’s succession was in trouble. But then the Great Leader died, and YJ has hardly appeared since. The Dear Leader has also seen off his hated stepmother Kim Song-ae, who used to head the women’s union, and her sons. One, Kim Pyong-il, a potential rival, lives in quasi-exile as ambassador in Warsaw.

By contrast, Kim Jong-il is close to his one surviving full sibling, his sister Kim Kyong-hui, and her husband Jang Song-thaek. She runs the party’s light industry section; he is a vice-director of the KWP Central Committee. As often in Pyongyang, an anodyne nominal title belies real rank. In November Jang visited Seoul with an economic delegation, to great excitement there. One day he overslept but none of his compatriots dared wake him; a South Korean had to do it.

Kim Jong-il turned 60 last year, so his own succession is a real if not yet a public issue. Given a tangled marital history, this too risks conflict. His Swiss-educated elder son Kim Jong-nam, 31, who runs the DPRK’s IT activities, was front-runner until caught on a covert trip to Japan last year. That embarrassment might make JN’s half-brother Kim Jong-chol, 20, the favourite.

A party preserved?

All this, of course, is behind the scenes. Officially North Korea is ruled by the KWP, but as noted this seems oddly frozen. The most important Politburo member is ex-foreign minister Kim Yong-nam, 74, who as presidium president of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) is the titular head of state. (The DPRK’s “eternal president” remains Kim Il-sung, mortality notwithstanding.) It was Kim Yong-nam who met foreign dignitaries before the Dear Leader began to do so, selectively, in 2000. He is also a unifying bridge between generations in the party.

Other full Politburo members each have specific oversight responsibilities. Jon Byong-ho, 76, as head of the secret Second Economy Committee, runs an arms industry which is bigger than, and has priority over, the civilian economy. Han Song-ryong, 75, has the poisoned chalice of heavy industry; while Kye Ung-tae, 77, oversees public security.

Alternate members (a rank lower) of the Politburo include Yon Hyong-muk, 71, a technocrat who impressed as prime minister a decade ago on several visits to Seoul. Demoted, after North-South ties worsened, to run the remote northerly Jagang province, he showed his mettle by a campaign to build local power stations, and he is now a rare civilian on the National Defence Commission (see below). Other alternate Politburo members are the current premier Hong Song-nam, 78, a former chief planner; Yang Hyong-sop (76) and Choe Thae-bok (73), respectively vice-president and chair of the SPA (in effect, speaker); and Choe Yong-rim, 76, the prosecutor-general.

Several of the above are also among the KWP’s secretaries. Others include Kim Kuk-tae, 78, who monitors the elite; Kim Ki-nam, 76, in charge of propaganda; and the best known, Kim Yong-sun (68), who after years in charge of international relations now has the hot potato of North-South ties. Here the stakes are high: a Seoul daily claims Kim was jailed last year after the new Bush administration chilled the atmosphere, until Kim Jong-il ordered his release.

All the above, as their ages attest, have been around for a while. (Some even older figures in their 80s, including the last survivors of Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla band, play a merely honorific role.)

As in the traditional communist model, the party takes priority over the state. Cabinet ministers, therefore, are a lesser breed unless like Hong Song-nam they also hold party positions. To complicate matters, at the eight rounds of inter-Korean “ministerial” talks since the June 2000 Pyongyang summit, North Korea has sent not ministers as such but a “cabinet advisor”, Jon Kum-jin (70), leading a younger team whose precise jobs and status are unclear.

Similar oddities apply in foreign affairs. Whereas Kim Yong-nam as foreign minister had real clout, the incumbent now, Paek Nam-sun (formerly Paek Nam-jun: name changes are another quirk), mainly does smile diplomacy – as at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Brunei, where he had coffee with Colin Powell. But for serious talks his nominal deputy Kim Kye-gwan takes over, or the real heavy hitter, first vice-foreign minister Kang Sok-ju. Kang negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework, and it was reportedly he who in October defiantly boasted to the US of North Korea’s new nuclear programme. By all accounts, he is one of Kim Jong-il’s closest confidants.

Soldiers on the march

Other emissaries to foreign lands are military. Two years ago, when Kim Jong-il sent a special envoy to Washington, he picked vice-marshal Jo Myong-rok, who took tea with Bill Clinton in the White House in full Korean People’s Army (KPA) uniform. That choice bespeaks the rise of the KPA under Kim Jong-il as a third elite, alongside or even above the party and state. Not only have the military as such gained status, but ups and downs in the ranks contrast with the KWP’s stasis.

For example the ex-air force chief Jo, 72, who in 1995 ranked 95th on one funeral committee (a vital index of political snakes and ladders for Pyongyang-watchers) by 1997 had shot up to 7th. His post as KPA political chief belies his role as Kim Jong-il’s top military ally and North Korea’s number two.

Similarly, Japanese sources report an unnamed general as central to secret talks to arrange Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit last September. Amid the debris of that abortive initiative, this figure told his Japanese counterpart: “At worst, you may lose your job” and drew his hand across his throat.

Whatever an individual’s fate, there are many signs of the KPA’s new clout overall. Formally, the revised 1998 constitution made the military-dominated National Defence Commission the highest state body, above the cabinet. Kim Jong-il rules North Korea as NDC chairman. An “army-first” policy is proclaimed; last year the army even replaced the proletariat as officially the core force of the revolution. Theory and practice point the same way. North Korea’s hard line on many issues is widely attributed (including by some DPRK diplomats, sotto voce) to military veto. The KPA would have much to lose from an outbreak of peace on the peninsula.

Besides Jo, the two main military figures are defence minister Kim Il-chol (69), a navy man, and chief of staff Kim Yong-jun (66 or 70; sources vary). Both have shot up the ranks, at the expense of others like O Guk-ryol, chief of staff in the late 1980s who was seen then as Kim Jong-il’s key ally in the KPA.

The crucial question of the Dear Leader’s precise relations with the military remains unclear. Many must have resented his being foisted on them, without any military experience, as commander-in-chief, his first official role. Then again, the success of his succession (so to say) was not predetermined; this testifies to his own political skills, even after paternal protection ceased. So he might have tamed the KPA – or have they tamed him? He has certainly promoted generals en masse and lavished gifts to buy their loyalty. It is just not known whether the current crisis reflects their stubbornness, or the limits of his horizons.

All change?

What next for North Korea’s political elite? At a well-lubricated lunch in happier times two summers ago, Kim Jong-il told visiting South Korean press magnates that a KWP congress would be held that autumn (it was not), which could remove a clause pledging it to communize South Korea. But there was a problem: “Among the top officials…are several who worked with President Kim Il-sung, so I find it’s difficult to revise. If the platform is changed, a lot of officials here will have to quit their posts. Some may claim that if I initiate the revision of the platform, I am trying to purge my opponents”. The laughter around the table was nervous.

Will there ever be another KWP congress? Maybe it is neither necessary to Kim Jong-il – nor possible for fear that desperation might unleash real debate over the country’s tragic trajectory. Many in Pyongyang must dread their future. If debate between hawks and reformers is barely audible, this reflects not only fear of getting out of line, but a shared stark awareness that they might all sink together.

If and when real change begins, by whatever means, then the chances of it evolving into a complete unravelling of the regime and state as such grow ever greater. Who, in 2003, would even want to save the foul shell that the DPRK has become? And how could they do it? But North Korea’s eventual agents of change, be they KPA colonels or workers goaded beyond endurance by hunger, still have no names that we yet know.


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