Interview: Unprecedented insights into North Korea’s military structure
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 second installment of our conversation in full here and excerpts from it below.
In the outside world, people commonly refer to the “second or third most powerful man” in North Korea, who is more often than not a military figure. Even today, many people see Choe Ryong Hae as the “number 2 man”, going as far to suggest that he orchestrated the purge of Jang Song Thaek. What are you thoughts on this?
I never came across such a concept of power ranking in North Korea. In fact, I only learned about this way of viewing things after my defection. In the outside world, people often ask, ‘Who is now number 2? Who is now number 3?’ But in North Korea, there is no such concept as a “number 2” or “number 3” man.
It is more accurate to look to the entity that decides who gets to wield what power. This is the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party. Away from the Workers’ Party, or to put it more specifically, away from the OGD, there is no power.
In this regard, it is a significant step forward for the public understanding of North Korea that NFI cited the OGD as being the core player in the purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek. It is long overdue that North Korean exiles with genuine knowledge begin to be heard and take the lead in the field of North Korean studies.
Could you explain the nature of the relationship between the OGD and military?
Here’s an example to do with the so-called “guidance” rights of the OGD. In 1991, on Kim Jong Il’s orders, a system of Party lectures was introduced and made compulsory for all North Korean generals. The entity that oversees this system is Section 13 of the OGD.
Generals must delegate their duties to another for two weeks and live communally on OGD premises, where they undergo sessions of ideological indoctrination and interrogation. It is during this time that military appointments and promotions are decided upon.
Please tell us a little more about the Party lectures.
When a general embarks on the residential course, he gets assigned a bed in a four person dormitory. The meals provided are of high quality.
A supervisor from the Organisational Office begins by conducting an evaluation and investigation of individuals, and asks for confessions of wrongdoing. He commands absolute terror among the generals, because they know that just above him is the OGD.
There are twenty generals a day attending a Party lecture. Near the end of a session, one man of the group deemed most guilty is put forward and an ideological criticism session is conducted. The military personnel appointment director of OGD Section 4 chairs this meeting.
Could you provide a structural overview of how the OGD retains its grip over the North Korean military?
The OGD monopoly over personnel appointment, surveillance, and “guidance” is a large part of it, but I won’t elaborate here as you have published this elsewhere. (See here for the piece.)
Again, I’ll provide an example to explain. Around December 1992, after Kim Jong Il became Supreme Commander, he announced in a speech for generals that ‘the military General Political Bureau is a sub-division of the OGD, even if it works in the sphere of the People’s Armed Forces.’
In North Korea, to hold OGD membership is a privilege that epitomises Kim Jong Il’s trust in you, and so your identity papers are referred to as an “omnipotent document”.
To be continued. In the full version, Choe touches upon North Korea’s military relations with countries in the Middle East and Africa by providing concrete examples and reveals more startling details about the nature of the relationship between North Korea’s most senior military figures and the ruling Workers’ Party.