Interview: In conversation with North Korea’s highest-ranking military defector
Choe Ju-hwal is North Korea’s highest-ranking military defector in South Korea. Choe served as Vice Director for Section 1 of the People’s Armed Forces (PAF) Foreign Relations Bureau, which is a central institutional arm of the military. His knowledge and insights are unparalleled.
Choe’s experience is highly valued by intelligence agencies, and continues to be used as the basis for analysis of military structures: an indicator of how the fundamental power structures of North Korea have not changed.
In observance of our fundamental principle, relying only on testimony that has been thoroughly vetted by means of corroboration and alignment between a defector’s official resume and details of testimony, we publish the first installment of our conversation with Choe in a snippet preview below, and in full here.
What did you do in North Korea?
Between 1975 and 1978, I studied Russian at the University of Foreign Languages in Pyongyang.
In April 1979, I was dispatched to the North Korean Embassy in Czechoslovakia as the vice military attache.
In 1983, I was recalled to Pyongyang and served as senior supervisor, and then vice director, at the PAF Foreign Relations Bureau. I worked here until 1994, reaching the rank of Colonel.
From January 1995, I served as a director for Yoongsung Trading Company, run by the military resources section of the People’s Armed Forces.
What were the circumstances and trigger for your defection?
Between 1992 to 1994, many senior military figures who had studied in USSR military academies were purged or executed en masse.
My immediate superior, director Kim Hak San of the PAF Foreign Relations Bureau, was one of those.
I learnt that I too was being targeted, and resolved to defect in order to escape execution.
Lieutenant General Hong Gye Song, husband of Choe Ryong Hae’s step-sister, was also among those targeted.
Choe Ryong Hae heads the KPA General Political Bureau, despite his lack of a military background. Was there any inkling back then that Choe might step into the military sphere?
In the early 90s, there was much expectation that Choe Ryong Hae would be soon appointed as vice organisational director of the General Political Bureau.
This was along with an expectation that Hong Gye Song would be appointed as KPA Chief of Staff and that Kim Jong Gak would be appointed to lead the People’s Armed Forces.
In early 1992, Lee Bong Won, vice organisational director of the General Political Bureau, was publicly scolded by Kim Jong Il during a Central Party Military Committee meeting.
He passed out on the spot and was admitted to hospital.
During Lee’s one month stay in hospital, the expectation was that Choe Ryong Hae would soon join the General Political Bureau as vice organisational director, wearing the rank of Lieutenant General.
Lee Bong Won was executed under the charge of espionage.
What is the role of the PAF Foreign Relations Bureau?
This is the diplomatic arm of North Korea’s military.
It has four main branches of responsibility:
Dispatching military attaches abroad, and micro-managing and co-ordinating their activities;
Liaising with military attaches from foreign countries stationed in Pyongyang, selecting, dispatching and coordinating North Korean military advisors, instructors and other military personnel to countries in the Middle East and Africa;
Assisting with propaganda relating to the Kim family, collating data pertaining to military activities in the host nation;
Procuring military technologies, documents and weapons, spot trading.
Not many know about the Strategic Command. Please explain for our readers.
The Strategic Command is supposed to be a part of the Chief of Staff Department, but the normal chain of command is ignored and the Strategic Command answered directly to Kim Jong Il.
Fragmentation of nominal military chains of command was a way to prevent concentration and build-up of power in any one area of the military. The Strategic Command was commonly referred to as the Strategic Command of the Supreme Commander.
It completely oversees all strategic and administrative functions of the military, and is referred to internally as Section 525.
To be continued. Read the first installment in full here.