Military influence broadens in Kim Jong-il’s North

Joon Ang Daily
Ser Myo-ja

Since its founder Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, North Korea’s political landscape has been transformed dramatically, and military officials have solidified their standing in the power elite of the communist country.

They have elbowed aside civilian politicians and bureaucrats, a new analysis shows, and the data confirm that the North’s “Military first” political slogan is much more than rhetoric.

In 1994, North Korea published a list of 273 people making up a committee to plan the founder’s funeral. That list also contained the seating order for those dignitaries at the funeral ― an accurate reflection of the pecking order in the North’s hierarchy at the time.

A JoongAng Ilbo special reporting team, its Unification Research Institute and Cyram, a research firm specializing in social network analyses, compared that 1994 rank order with data drawn from profiles of 324 North Korean figures provided by the Unification Ministry and the National Intelligence Service. The researchers ranked the top 50 North Korean figures after Kim Jong-il, the current leader and son of the late president, and compared that new list to the data from 12 years ago. The 2006 rankings took account of the officials’ titles and their roles, how often they have accompanied Mr. Kim on his frequent “site inspection” tours, seating charts and ranks announced by Pyongyang last year for several political events and evaluations by specialists in North Korean affairs.

“Kim Yong-nam is the official head of state in North Korea, but he acts as a subordinate to Kim Jong-il at public events,” said Chon Hyun-joon, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “In order to find out who actually is capable of controlling people, money and policies in North Korea, we have to use a special approach.”

On the new list, Mr. Kim, whose official title is chairman of the National Defense Commission, sits atop the hierarchy. Jo Myong-rok, the first vice chairman of the defense commission, was ranked second and Kim Yong-nam, head of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, was ranked third. The Supreme People’s Assembly is the North’s legislative body, but it normally delegates most of its power to the Presidium, a core group of elected members.

Jon Byong-ho, a Workers’ Party secretary, and Kim Il-chol, minister of the People’s Armed Forces, are ranked fourth and fifth. The Workers’ Party has been the only party in the North since 1948, except for a few parties that exist on paper as counterparts for foreign social democrats, for example. The Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces is responsible for the management and operational control of the North’s military. It is directly controlled by the National Defense Commission, which Kim Jong-il heads.

Kim Yong-chun, the Army chief of staff, was ranked seventh on the new list, followed by Pak Pong-ju, the premier.

Comparing the new rankings with the 1994 list, only two people ― Kim Jong-il and Kim Yong-nam ― kept their top-10 posts in 2006. Among the top 51, only 16 still remain in power.

The comparison showed a clear shift in the job titles represented in the elite. During the Kim Il Sung era, members of the politburo and Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, the cabinet, the military, the Supreme People’s Assembly and some other organizations were all represented in the power elite. With the party at the center, the officials were balanced, presumably in an effort to avoid concentrations of political power and possible threats to Kim Il Sung’s leadership.

But North Korea under his son is dominated by the “Dear Leader,” as North Koreans refer to him, and the National Defense Commission members.

Military officials surged to the top over the 12 years. On the 2006 list, the top 50 North Koreans after Kim Jong-il include 12 military men, up from five in 1994. Ri Yong-mu, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, was ranked ninth in 2006, climbing from 55th on the 1994 list. Mr. Kim’s three favorite generals, Hyon Chol-hae, Pak Jae-gyong and Ri Myong-su, were added to the new top-50 list. They have appeared frequently at Mr. Kim’s side on his inspection tours throughout the past year. In addition to the 12 flag officers, five other men in the top 50 are also involved in military matters.

In 1994, 25 Workers’ Party members were ranked among the top 50 leaders; that number increased to 27 in 2006. People in charge of party organization and propaganda were prominent on the list. North Korea appeared to have put lesser value on bureaucrats and economists as the Kim Jong-il regime has progressed. Eighteen bureaucrats and economic officials were on the 1994 roster, but the number dropped to six in the new list. In 1998, the North revised its Constitution, dropping vice presidents and the prime minister’s staff. That change could be one of the reasons for the relative scarcity of administrative officials on the new list.

Some analysts had a different interpretation: The lack of bureaucratic power officials in the list, they suggested, reflected Kim Jong-il’s priority of defending his regime rather than rebuilding the nation’s shattered economy.

North Korea watchers also said Mr. Kim runs the communist country by directly controlling the military, the party and the cabinet by stacking those institutions with people personally loyal to him. “Since 1998, Mr. Kim has issued orders under the title of the National Defense Commission, but Pyongyang-watchers were unable to confirm that he was actually presiding at the commission meetings,” said Chon Hyun-joon of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “The North’s power is concentrated in Mr. Kim alone, and there is a limit on how much authority he can exercise directly. In recent times, Mr. Kim appears to have handed over some of his powers to his closest confidants.”

The research also showed that a complex network of blood, school and career ties weaves the top 50 leaders together. Of the 50, at least 30 are members of that network; no information was available on the family, schools and careers of 11 of the other 20; at least some are probably bound up in that web.

“During the Kim Il Sung era, the official ranking showed the strength of each individual’s power,” said Hyon Song-il, a former North Korean diplomat who is now a researcher at the National Security and Unification Policy Research Institute. “In the era of Kim Jong-il, becoming his confidant means power.”

The North’s top 50 people include six of Mr. Kim’s family members. School ties among Kim Il Sung University graduates were also visible; 22 are alumni of the North’s prestigious school.

The 35 vacancies on the list between 1994 and 2006 were all filled by Kim Jong-il loyalists. Among the absentees, 16 either died of natural causes or were executed. Oh Jin-wu, known as Kim Il Sung’s right arm, and Ri Jong-ok, the North’s vice president, died naturally; So Kwan-hi, the party’s agriculture secretary, was reportedly executed in 1997, along with other officials, to appease anger over the famine of the late 1990s.

Hwang Jang-yop, who was ranked 26th on the 1994 list, defected to South Korea. Kim Chol-su, the 22nd most influential person in the North in 1994, was later identified as Song Du-yul, a scholar who is now a German citizen, by intelligence authorities and prosecutors in Seoul.

There is little room for women in the North’s elite, both in 1994 and 2006. In 1994, two women were among the top 50 officials, but the number fell to one in 2006. Kim Kyong-hee, the light industry department head of the Workers’ Party, is Mr. Kim’s younger sister.


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