The ICAS Lectures


Current Political Dynamics Inside North Korea

Ken Gause

ICAS Fall Symposium

October 23, 2014 1:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Rayburn House Office Building Room B-318
United States House of Representatives
Capitol Hill Washington DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Ken Gause

Current Political Dynamics Inside North Korea

Ken Gause
Director, International Affairs Group
CNA Corporation
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 going forward.

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 regimeís future.

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 of power.

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.

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 future.

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.

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 misguided.

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 going forward.

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.

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 future.

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 question.

This page last updated October 24, 2014 jdb