Current Political Dynamics Inside North Korea
Director, International Affairs Group
October 23, 2014
I would like to thank ICAS
for what I think will be a very enlightening workshop and asking me
to come speak to you today.
I have been tasked with discussing current political dynamics inside the North Korean regimeó
a rather timely topic given Kim Jong-unís recent disappearing act and rumors gripping the
media and talking heads on whether he had been toppled in a coup or was being manipulated
by some shadowy organization. His return to the public arena, hobbling along with the use of a
cane, has raised serious questions about his health.
So what are we to make of all this? What is going on inside the Hermit Kingdom? Who are the
key players? Is the regime stable or beginning to wobble? These are some of the questions I will
touch on today.
My talk will be based on an assessment of North Korean leadership dynamics under KJU I
published in February, which can be found on CNAís website, augmented with material I have
gathered from sources in the region over the last few months for a book I am currently writing
on NK leadership dynamics and the KJU apparatus. Hopefully, it will be out later this year or
early next year.
I will begin my comments with a discussion of the leadership dynamics that existed on the eve
of the purge of Jang Song-taek. Then I will say a thing or two about the dynamics that led to the
purge. I will discuss the implications of Jangís purge on the leadership. I will conclude with what
it is we are to make of the disappearance and reappearance of Kim Jong-un and regime stability
BLUF, politics inside NK are very active. KJU has not consolidated his power, but has brought
many parts of the apparatus under his thumb. There, however, is a looming issue within the
family that he may face and how that plays out will potentially have a dramatic impact on the
The Creation/Destruction of the Regent Structure
Iím not going to go into the history of the politics of the regime since KJIís death in 2011. There
has been much written on that. Safe to say that from 2012 and early 2013, there was a great
deal of reshuffle at the second and third echelons of power. The high command was overturned
and all of the uniform escorts to KJIís hearse had either been purged or demoted. New
appointments were made to most of the formal leadership bodies, such as the Politburo and
NDC. And, more importantly, within months of his fatherís death, KJU had acquired all the titles
But holding the titles of power is only part of what it takes to assume the mantle of Supreme
Leader in North Korea. There is also a relationship building process that Kim Jong-un must go
through, as well as an education process in how to wield the levers of power.
By late 2012 and early 2013, the inner circle around Kim Jong-un had come into focus. This was
the so-called "regent structure." It was composed of three regents who served as the
gatekeepers, ensured Kimís situational awareness, assisted him in developing critical
relationships, and guided his decision-making. All three had their own functional
responsibilities and influence.
- Kim Kyong-hui (67) was the premier regent and wielded the most influence with
Kim Jong-un. She was reportedly the only person allowed to verbally discuss policy
with her nephew; others had to make their suggestions in written form. She was
responsible for coaching Kim Jong-un on how to conduct politics and took the lead in
ensuring that he develops the critical relationships throughout the regime that he
would need in order to rule on his own. As a blood relative and the keeper of Kim
Jong-ilís last will and testament, she was responsible for ensuring that the Kim family
equities were respected and protected. In this capacity, she apparently had veto
power over all decisions except those made by Kim Jong-un himself.
Kim Kyong-huiís formal power was revealed at the Fourth Party Conference. She was
elevated within the Central Committee apparatus from department director to KWP
Secretary for Light Industry. She was also a full member of the Politburo, a post she
received at the Third Party Conference. Behind the scenes, according to South
Korean sources, she engineered the promotions of several Party, military, and
government leaders to key positions within the leadership ranks.
- Jang Song-taek (67) was, for all intents and purposes, the number two leader
within the regime next to Kim Jong-un. When I was in Seoul in May 2013, there was
a growing consensus within the South Korean Pyongyang watching community that
he served the role of "Control Tower." He reportedly saw most, if not all, of the
reports and message traffic earmarked for Kim Jong-un. He was allowed to prioritize
this paperwork, but could not alter it in any way. He interacted with the various
issue task groups to work through options and reach a consensus for Kimís final
decision. In this regard, he worked closely with Kimís Personal Secretariat. Jang
maintained control over the portfolios for the economy and internal security. He
also had input on foreign policy, especially as it related to China, as well as inter-
Korean relations. Given his apparent meetings with two private U.S. delegations to
Pyongyang in 2012, he may also have had influence on North Korean relations with
the United States, although this was likely the purview of Kang Sok-ju, the longtime
foreign policy advisor to the Kim family.
At the Fourth Party Conference, Jang Song-taek was elevated from alternate
member to full member of the Politburo. He was also a vice chairman of the
National Defense Commission, as well as the director of the KWP Administrative
Department, which oversaw the organizations responsible for internal security. He
reportedly oversaw one of the largest and most diverse patronage systems within
the North Korean leadership.
- Choe Ryong-hae (63) was the junior member of the regents surrounding Kim
Jong-un. His role was to ensure the loyalty of the military. More than that of any
other figure, Choeís status was catapulted at the Fourth Party Conferenceómoving
up in the formal leadership rankings from 18th to 4th. Already an alternate member
of the Politburo (since the 2010 Third Party Conference) and KWP Secretary for
Military Affairs, Choe was elevated to the Politburo Presidium. He also became a
vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Not a professional soldier, Choe
was a vice marshal and director of the General Political Bureau, the Partyís
surveillance organ within the armed forces. He apparently had a direct channel to
Kim Jong-unóhis reports were not subject to vetting by Jang Song-taek. While the
relationship between Choe and Jang was not clear, the potential existed for Kim
Jong-un (with Kim Kyong-huiís assistance) to play the two off against each other in
order to create space within the inner core of the regime to grow his own power and
The picture by December 2013 was that the Supreme Leader was operating inside a highly
structured bubble surrounded by gatekeepers. His interactions outside of this bubble were
somewhat managed, but he had the ability to reach out to the wider North Korean leadership
in order to access reservoirs of information and advice, and to build relationships for the
Fall of Jang Song-taek
The story for 2014 has been the destruction of this regent structure and KJUís rapid advance
through the final stage of his consolidation processóa path that is far from certain.
As with all good tales, it begins with a mystery; in this case the fall of JST. Why would KJU get rid
of the Control Tower and one of his closest advisers? Why would he risk regime instability at
the top? Was it an act of hubris? An act of paranoia? Was this his decision or was the decision
forced on him by other powers inside the regime?
Most of the stories written about the affair tie it directly to a competition for hard currency
between powerful groups. The supposed clash between military forces and forces loyal to Jang
at the fisheries station has been widely reported. Speculation that the OGD engineered his fall
is also widely reported.
For the Pyongyang watching community the answer to why JST was purged and executed would
provide information directly to how this regime is ruled.
- If we subscribe to the stories about the powerful OGD and its manipulation of power
dynamics behind the scenes, it suggests that KJU is not in control and thus NK has a
power structure without a head. This model leads to certain conclusions about NK
decision-making and rule that is out of step with 60 years of history. It is a paradigm
shift that, if true, holds real concerns for near term stability.
- The other model, which I support, is that KJU is the ultimate decision-maker. He is
still working on his consolidation of power and JSTís purge was part of this process.
There is information seeping out of Pyongyang that suggests that Jangís purge was an inside job
tied to the Kim family equities. In other words, the stories of a power struggle between JST and
the Organization Guidance Department/Military/Internal Security apparatus were a side show.
The speculation that KJU is a puppet who is being manipulated by the OGD is completely
The reason for Jangís fall from grace was in many respects foreordained and tied to hard
currency operations and a falling out with KKH, his wife, and KJU. He was a threat and his
reliability as a guarantor of Kim family rule had come under suspicion.
In the days after KJIís death, there was a rush to stabilize the regime. This was a two prong
strategy. The first was political and tied to KJUís rush to consolidate the titles of power. The
other was economic and led to the concentration of core economic interests in the hands of
JST. This was primarily done because of Jangís relations with China, which were seen as crucial
In 2010, KJI had secured JSTís support for the hereditary succession to KJU by allowing him to
build his patronage system unencumbered.
JST was also made a vice chairman of the NDC. From this point on, Jang had used his position to
wrest away many of the hard currency operations from the military that had been put in place
under the Military First Policy. Department 54, which was run by Jangís minions from the KWP
Administrative Department, began a process of wresting millions that had once gone to senior
members of the high command. Following KJIís death, Jang accelerated this consolidation of
hard currency operations. His control over the China portfolio, which had begun under KJI now
became unencumbered. This included nearly $1.7 billion in Kim family funds in Chinese banks
that KJU would have to rely on his uncle to get access to.
In August 2012, KJU and KKH sent JST to China to discuss the properties of the new regime
following KJIís death and discuss the Sino-NK economic relations, including several joint
economic ventures. He was also given the secret mission to secure the family funds from the
banks (which were nested in Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, and Huangzhou). For some reason,
which has yet to be determined, this did not happen. Whether Jang had another agenda or ran
into problems with the Chinese leadership is not clear. The result, however, was a growing
concern by KJU and KKH that Jangís ties to China may be problematic. Some have speculated
that this concern was tied to a belief that Jang was working with Chinaís leadership to force
long-hoped for reforms inside NK and by denying the regime the needed Kim family funds.
According to one Chinese source close to the Hu Jintao, the Chinese leadershipís view was that
Jangís power in August 2012 was not as profound as it had once been. He was seen as a
messenger, not a power broker. If this is true, it lends credence to the theory that although
JSTís status rose dramatically following KJIís death, his fate had been sealed much earlier in
2011 when KJI entrusted his will to his sister, KKH. While not explicitly stated, KJI implied that in
the near future JST must be dealt with. The potential for him to become a second center of
power was too real.
The next chapter of the story came in the fall of 2012 when KKH suffered a mild stroke. This
event seemed to unleash a series of actions inside the regime. First, Jangís public profile began
to wane. While he had headed the list of cadre accompanying KJU in 2012, he plummeted in
the rankings as CRH assumed that role. Second, the OGD, either at KKH or KJUís behest, began a
surveillance operation on JST, which uncovered his hidden business dealings, as well as his
affairs with numerous women. In March, KKH was informed and while the dalliances should not
have been a surprise, it apparently convinced her to not spare her husband in her effort to
complete the mandate from her brotherís will: to consolidate KJUís leadership, idolization, and
ensure that the Party stood firmly behind him.
From that point on, things moved quickly. In the May-June timeframe, the OGD, SSD, and KJUís
Personal Secretariat established a task force to prepare the way for JSTís purge. By October, the
planning was complete and was set in motion when KJU received the report from the task
force, which was headed by Kim Kyong Ok, the first vice director of the OGD. The report
detailed how JST had been building his empire across the Party, military, and government since
2008 following KJIís stroke. This empire building had been somewhat hidden from KJU because
of the deterioration of the surveillance apparatus inside the regimeómost of which reported
directly to Jang. It left little doubt that KJU needed to act and act soon.
The plan was to first go after JSTís key lieutenants Jang Su Gil and Ri Yong Ha, which was done
in November. This essentially removed an important support mechanism for JST by cutting his
control ties in the KWP Administrative Department, the center of his growing empire. Soon
after, JST was placed under house arrest, later hauled out for the ceremonial removal from the
Politburo meeting on December 8 and finally tried by a secret military tribunal and executed on
December 12. On December 24, KJU signed orders for the SSD, MPS, and MSC to stabilize
popular sentiment and begin the purge of Jangís followers. The Administrative Department was
disestablished with some of its responsibilities returning to the OGD and its security oversight
transferring to KJU as the first chairman of the NDC.
The Regime Today
In the months since JSTís purge, the regime has worked hard to establish the ideological
foundation for KJUís rule. His position for now appears secure, but he is still a year or two from
consolidating his power.
- As I define it, consolidation of power in the NK regime is the process of learning how
to manipulate the levers of power and establishing the relationships necessary to
ensure that the Supreme Leaderís will is carried out.
The cast of characters around Kim have begun to change. KKH has not been seen in public since
September 2013. While her health is bad, some sources contend that she has willingly removed
herself from public politics. This could be the reason that the Politburo meeting in April, at
which many Pyongyang watchers were expecting to see the new leadership lineup, was kept
secret and its personnel decisions not publicized.
CRH, the final visible regent was promoted to vice chairman of the NDC, replacing JST. But a
month later, in May, he was replaced by Hwang Pyong So, a first vice director of the OGD, as
head of the GPB. Hwang is now KJUís new right hand man. What KJU has done has created
competition between his two primary lieutenants in order to keep any one person from being
able to secure the "Number 2" spot in the regime. In recent photos, CRH has been featured,
while HPS has been out of focus in the background. This all has meaning.
Many of KKHís duties have fallen to KJUís half-sister, Kim Sol Song. Kim Sol Song, who was one
of the authors of her fatherís will and a close confidant of her aunt heads KJUís Personal
Secretariat. She has assumed some of the mentoring duties for both KJU and his younger sister,
Kim Yo Jong, who appears to be being groomed to step into KKHís shoes sometime in the
Although there are many military figures around KJU, such as Ri Yong Gil (GSD) and Hyon Yong
Chol (MPAF), and even Hwang Pyong So (GPB), the most influential person in the high
command is O Kuk Ryol. As vice chairman of the NDC, he has the portfolio for crisis
management. The O family has for decades served in a Praetorian Guard role for the Kim
family. Oís profile rose soon after KJIís death and then diminished somewhat in 2012 and 2013.
But since JSTís death, he has once again assumed a public profile.
So What Happened to Kim Jong-un?
For six weeks from early September until last week, the international media and intelligence
communities around the world were playing a game of "Whereís Waldo?" when it came to KJU.
That was the question. He was missing meetings he had attended before. Even the NK media
made the rare admission that he was ill. I gave several interviews during this period and the
only thing the reporters wanted to talk about was the rumors that Kim was under house arrest
or had been toppled by a coup or was a puppet being manipulated by the powerful OGD. No
one wanted to hear the most likely story. He had a hurt foot.
I found it enlightening that when it comes to NK, we are more likely to believe conspiracies and
the absurd than following Occamís Razor, which states that among competing hypotheses, the
one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may
ultimately prove correct, butóin the absence of certaintyóthe fewer assumptions that are
made, the better. In a situation where the NK media is still extolling the virtues of KJU, as well
as the absence of any unusual movement within the leadership, why should we jump to the
conclusion that a coup has occurred? If a shadowy organization, such as the OGD, were running
things behind the scenes, why would two of the most powerful men from the leadership
suddenly appear in South Korea trying to promote diplomatic relations? All of this suggests that
KJU is fully in control, that the fundamental principal on which this Suryong-based system is
based on, namely that the SL is the source of all power and legitimacy, has not changed. KJU is
the sole decision-maker. He is Number 1. There is no number 2.
The Issue of Stability
As for the future, I believe the next 2-5 years will be critical to determining the long term
viability of the regime. The reason for this has to do with another potential power center within
the regime, namely Kim Sol Song, KJUís half-sister. As KJU reshuffles the leadership, appointing
members of the Third and Fourth generations to key posts within the regime, the old guard has
allegedly begun looking for other patronage systems to attach themselves to. Since KKH has
stepped back from the political arena, many are now turning to KSS.
The real question will arise in the near future when KJU is ready to push KSS aside. If she goes
quietly, there will be no problem and stabilityóat least in terms of politicsówill not be an
issue. If, however, she pushes back, she could be a formidable roadblock to KJUís consolidation
process. Elements of the military and Party apparatus are divided. Even the OGD is divided with
some members tied to KSS while others are tied to KJU.
Therefore, the future of the NK regime is still uncertain. It is facing tremendous economic
challenges and while regime politics seem stable for now, whether this will last is a big
This page last updated October 24, 2014 jdb