Why Choe Ryong-hae is not North Korea’s No. 2
It has been claimed that Choe Ryong-hae is the “second most powerful man” in North Korea. In support of this view, recent coverage of Kim Jong-un’s on-site visit by North Korea’s state media announcing Choe ahead of Hwang Pyong-so in the list of officials accompanying Kim was cited. Yet it is quite natural and customary for North Korean state media to announce the Chair of the National Sports Guidance Committee, Choe Ryong-hae, ahead of others when the visit in question is to a soccer stadium.
Others pointed to Hwang Pyong-so’s so-called “demotion” — his not being one of the “escort” but rather, acting as “steward” during Kim Jong-un’s military inspections — as evidence that Choe Ryong-hae had rose to become North Korea’s second most powerful man. Yet it is again quite natural for Hwang Pyong-so, who remains at the public helm of North Korea’s military in his position as director of the General Political Bureau, to receive the Supreme Commander as steward on his visits to military training grounds. Even under Kim Jong-il, such demonstrations were considered “rites of loyalty”, and were commonplace.
In order to attenuate the heightened attention paid to the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) in the aftermath of Jang Song-thaek’s execution, to manage the burden and risks of the OGD’s increasing exposure and to maintain the legitimacy of a Supreme Leader centered enforcement system, such things as order or rank of individual public appearances can be easily taken into account and adjusted according to circumstances of perception.
In fact, the North Korean political system’s workings and power principles make it all but impossible for Choe Ryong-hae to be North Korea’s “second most powerful man”.
The reality of power in North Korea: an overview of its structural underpinnings
Even a prominent figure such as Choe Ryong-hae wields no more actionable power than any other Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) member of his affiliated institution, especially as far as the organisational secretary of the institution’s Party Committee is concerned — under whose remit of authority Choe falls unconditionally, just as with all other KWP members in his institution.
Each and every institution or organisation or state sanctioned business in North Korea, operating under the auspices of the military or party or otherwise, has an administrative branch and a Party Committee system that comes into being for the existence of the entity. While the administrative branch may vary in shape and operational functions depending on the nature and purpose of each entity (emotional, commercial, control, etc.), the Party Committee (First Party Committee for entities of central importance) always comprises an organisational branch.
The power within each North Korean entity rests in its (First) Party Committee, not any figures or sections that come under its administrative branch. And within each (First) Party Committee, the organisational branch is the ultimate authority, with the branch overseen by an organisational supervisor for Party Committees and an organisational secretary for First Party Committees.
The Party Committee system of organisationally configured and staggered power is how the OGD has maintained its monopoly of grip in monitoring, surveillance and KWP steering guidance over all sanctioned North Korean entities, including the entire North Korean military, all surveillance institutions, and all the Supreme Leader’s security personnel. The organisational system within which Choe Ryong-hae’s power, in all practical senses, is controlled and confined is one that restricts and monitors every other KWP member (KWP membership being a prerequisite for military promotions as well as party promotions) and sanctioned entity at all levels of North Korean society, encompassing the very highest and lowest rungs of North Korea’s military, security and socio-political system.
In concrete terms, while an institution’s Party Secretary, e.g. Choe Ryong-hae, represents and oversees its public, operational or administrative responsibilities, the organisational secretary of the institution’s (First) Party Committee maintains oversight over all the members and activities of the institution, including that of its “publicly prominent” Party Secretary. This is managed through the Cell Party Committees of the institution, to which all staff or members of the institution belong to by default, as their most basic KWP organisational affiliation and grouping.
The oversight includes KWP membership accounting, enforcement of KWP steering guidance and life-conduct, surveillance and investigations on the grounds of personnel management and personnel vetting, and last but not least, the exclusive right and obligation to submit situational reports on the members and activities of the entity on a daily basis, to be received and gathered into the OGD.
This line maintained through organisational secretaries, who do not keep a public profile or identity for operational reasons, bypasses and falls beyond the authorised remit — without exception — even of his institution’s First Party Committee (comprised of organisational, propaganda and general affairs cadres as well as its administrative rank holders), as well as of the institution’s nominal political representative — its Party Secretary.
In part to safeguard the absolute internal authority of each entity’s organisational secretary, but also to imbue systemically a principle whereby even the apparently powerful always become “equally powerless” in the invocation of the KWP guidance system, the organisational secretary concurrently serves as Cell Party Secretary of the institution’s Cell First Party Committee, which is the Cell Party Committee (the furthest capillary grouping of the Party Committee system – all KWP members must belong to a Cell Party Committee) of an entity comprised only of its First Party Committee members.
In this way, the deep-seated power of the OGD is not like a castle in the clouds of the Korean Workers’ Party; it rests in the intricacy of its pervasive reach, wielding in monopoly the channels of surveillance, enforcement and KWP steering guidance from the highest to the lowest levels and in every state-sponsored sphere.
Fundamental misunderstandings regarding North Korea’s political system
Choe Ryong-hae was appointed as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee because as the son of Choe Hyun, Kim Il-sung’s revolutionary comrade, he is someone whose current prominence can most effectively maintain the propaganda of the Kim dynasty’s revolutionary heritage. The lack of prominent figures who remain descended from that “first generation of revolutionaries” is a consequence of Kim Jong-il’s OGD personnel regulations, fixed in the early years of his consolidation of power, that prohibited the offspring of his father’s associates from being appointed to positions within the central institutions of the Worker’s Party.
But recently, some North Korean defectors claimed that on October 6, Choe Ryong-hae had ordered the arrest and execution of Kim Kyong-ok, a first deputy director of the OGD. Then on October 10, Kim Kyong-ok appeared in the state media.
Aside from the photographic evidence, even the nature of the political system in North Korea makes it impossible for Choe Ryong-hae to lead a purge of Kim Kyong-ok. As far as visibility is concerned, Choe may be prominent in propaganda and as a Party Secretary of the Worker’s Association; but in institutional terms, he is just another KWP member, subject to the monitoring and guidance of the organizational secretary of the Workers’ Association. It is physically and structurally impossible for Choe Ryong-hae, a KWP member working under the remit of his organisational secretary, to purge and execute Kim Kyong-ok, who is seated above the organizational secretaries, in his position as first deputy director of the OGD.
A Party Secretary simply cannot lead a purge of a first deputy director of the OGD, which was the enforcer and safeguard of Kim Jong-il’s power; nor can he be “more powerful than a demoted Hwang Pyong-so”, another first deputy director of the OGD who now publicly heads the North Korean military.
One of the greatest and persistent mistakes committed by outside commentators and observers has been to base, begin and end their interpretation of North Korea’s political workings by analysing surface configurations and visible changes to individual personnel appointments. In such a framework, when North Korea’s “No.2” or “No.3” slips out of the picture “unexpectedly”, the resulting interpretation often ends up being a simplistic attribution to the whim of dictator Kim Jong-un.
By taking into account only what North Korea has revealed to the world through sanctioned channels, and by neglecting to take into account empirical understandings of the OGD system of KWP Party Committees that fundamentally underpins the workings of power and politics in North Korea, such speculative observations by outsiders can only misinterpret and misunderstand what is going on.
Unverified information out of context
The workings of the OGD, let alone its channels, mechanisms and functions, remain veiled even for most North Koreans. It became after all the power-checking surveillance system for safeguarding Kim Jong-il’s sole authority, designed to engage in a direct manner only with a few central institutions. Moreover, the only authority that ordinary North Koreans must know or acknowledge has been that of the Supreme Leader and his absolute guidance.
Nevertheless, many individuals and groups, North Korean defectors among them, continue to interpret or make claims about North Korean power and politics using instances of unverified information in a framework devoid of any relevant empirical understanding. This has only exacerbated the outside world’s ingrained mistrust of the North Korean diaspora, as well as the neglect of a most valuable resource for understanding North Korea — firsthand knowledge and experiences and perspectives — effectively helping to obscure the North Korean regime’s deep-seated system of control.
More guilty than those fabricating information or passing judgement beyond their means have been outside commentators and media not being held accountable for publishing fundamentally inaccurate and undiscerning reports, falling back on the crutch of “knowledge about North Korea is unverifiable”. In these circumstances, it is not a continual stream of “latest news” or “fresh information” that leads to a more accurate understanding of North Korea, but rather, a continual close and empirically contextualised observation of North Korea to uncover and better articulate its realities.
In order to improve our shared understanding of North Korea, those with first-hand knowledge, experience and perspectives must commit to pursuing and better articulating truths, and the world to encouraging, respecting and embracing all their potential.
By Jang Jin-sung.
Read in Korean.
Translated by Haeryun Kang. Edited by Shirley Lee.
Featured image: Korean Broadcasting System