Hwang Pyong-so’s visit to South Korea through the eyes of a former UFD official

Tuesday 7th October, 2014

North Korea’s top military representative Hwang Pyong-so, concurrently in charge of military affairs at the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), visited South Korea on October 4 for the stated purpose of attending the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. He was accompanied by Party Secretary for inter-Korean affairs Kim Yang-gon and Chair of the National Sports Guidance Committee Choe Ryong-hae.

Only a few days ago, North Korea was issuing threats of military provocation, and hurling very colourful insults at South Korean President Park Geun-hye. In any account, the visit makes for an abrupt U-turn in North Korea’s approach to inter-Korean relations.

Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s interactions with South Korea have lost their strategic coherence and consistency, in a manner that contrasts with the coordination and centralisation that were hallmarks of Kim Jong-il’s time.

In the past, North Korea established and planned in advance the inter-Korean objectives to be accomplished by taking a “hardline” turn: to encourage the giving of aid in exchange for the easing of tactically devised “tensions”; to strengthen North Korea’s position and leverage by resorting to pincer pressure; to consolidate the DPRK domestic mood to create a policy environment favourable for its goals.

“Hardline” signals were a staple tool in North Korea’s arsenal for creating inter-Korean leverage. The signals were always part of a larger campaign where goals and steps were set, executed, valid only for a pre-defined period and scrupulously managed.

With a level of tenacity and persistence that might be judged as obsessive by the outside world, and with utmost professionalism, inter-Korean psychological warfare units worked to ensure that engagement and interaction with South Korea would end in one of several of North Korea’s strategically planned outcomes.

The potential emotional reactions and public-mood responses of South Korean civil society and discourse too were always taken into account and utilised as tools and levers, not unlike the consideration of elements such as scenes, plotlines and characters in the writing of a sequel.

But that operational unity I am familiar with has given way not only to impromptu foreign policy turns, but a failure to strategically coordinate. There is confusion at the top.

From the smallest details such as sending a cheerleading squad, to Hwang Pyong-so’s attendance of the closing ceremony, North Korea’s inter-Korean approaches have been shaky. On the cheerleading squad, North Korea went from agreement to cancellation in the space of two days. And until a few days ago, South Korean President Park Geun-hye had been framed by North Korea as leading an administration that it could not possibly consider having dialogue with.

But due to the manner in which the North Korean system of power holds at the top, strategic disarray is an absence of leadership. Under Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s officials turned all types of decision-making, however trivial, into a policy proposal that could eventually be signed by Kim Jong-il. There would then be deliberative processes, with Kim Jong-il making his opinions known, until a signature by Kim Jong-il ratified the policy into the status of “unchallengeable command”. In all cases, Kim’s word or imprimatur was always final.

Cadres had a deeply ingrained working rationale of reliance on and dependence on Kim Jong-il’s ultimate authority in command ratification. In turn, this system of procedures served as the stabilising force in maintaining systemic stability: everything pivoted on Kim Jong-il’s last word.

But things are different now. Even though Kim Jong-un attaches his signature to policy proposals as his father did, which is what must be done to sustain a “Supreme Leader justified” system, the power elite need to finalise their deliberations on a proposal before delivering it to Kim Jong-un for his ratification to make it into an irreversible decision. In a sharp reversal of roles, Kim is now the “rubber stamp”.

Neither only because Kim Jong-un is young, untested, and lacks the decades of political experience that other members of the power elite possess; nor merely because Kim Jong-un has no natural allies except classmates from Switzerland who also lack North Korean political savvy and power bases in North Korea; but precisely because North Korean politics is pivoted on and fatally dependent on the Supreme Leader’s absolute and unchallengeable authority, the OGD knows that to entrust Kim Jong-un with the responsibilities of that highest office is rash, and might easily cause the system to fall apart.

The OGD’s self-interest is in maintaining their privileged positions; they are not going to give Kim Jong-un the authority to fail the state, lest they lose their own power.

This is a political system whose rationale and bottom line is none other than the ultimate and unchallengeable authority of the Supreme Leader. If the Supreme Leader acts or speaks imprudently – even by mistake – the entire system must move with him. Moreover, Kim Jong-un is not a first Supreme Leader, but a third; he must conform in ideology, appearance, and even in bodily mass, to the paths of prior Supreme Leaders.

Kim Jong-il’s OGD worked to safeguard his powers, monitoring the systemic conformity of North Korea’s elite; today, the OGD must monitor the systemic conformity of the Supreme Leader himself. Meanwhile, they must ensure that the fundamentals mechanisms of their totalitarian system also remain as they are.

The Party’s Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) and Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) form the two pillars of North Korea’s totalitarianism, receiving into their centralised offices the reins of tangible and organisational, and psychological and cultural control mechanisms, respectively. Drawing on decades of narrative experience and organisational resources, there is nothing to stop the OGD and PAD from continuing to depict Kim Jong-un (or even Kim Yeo-jung or anyone else descended from the bloodline) as being Supreme Leader.

But the problem lies at the operational levels, in matters of statesmanship, such as in consolidating the cohesion of domestic and foreign policies.

Kang Sok-ju’s recent diplomatic tour of Europe is yet another manifestation of anxiety among North Korea’s power elite. In the era of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, no individual cadre could embark on such a campaign, and certainly not serve in the capacity of spokesperson.

It is striking that so many commenting on Hwang Pyong-so’s visit to South Korea suggested he had come as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy, or that the move demonstrated the security of Kim Jong-un’s position and power. Hwang Pyong-so visited in a military rank higher than that of Pak Jae-gyong, who had come to South Korea in Kim Jong-il’s time holding the office of director of military propaganda; but all evidence contradicts the notion that Hwang Pyong-so came as an envoy or representative of Kim Jong-un.

Hwang Pyong-so arrived in South Korea with a visible entourage of bodyguards. In North Korea, that right belongs to the Supreme Leader alone. The power principles of the system forbid the existence of so-called “second or third most powerful officials” that the outside world has often been wont to see. North Korea’s elite cadres have been groomed to lead their lives in instinctive and competitive shows of loyalty to the Supreme Leader, proving their “greater loyalty” to Kim Jong-il by calling out a fellow cadre’s lack of respect for the Leader.

The assigning of visible bodyguards to Hwang Pyong-so must not happen if existing norms of North Korea’s power principles are to be maintained. That he did so is a challenge to those norms.

In a nation where Jang Song-thaek’s “half hearted applause” can be deemed an act of lese majesté worthy of the death penalty, such a move by Hwang Pyong-so infringes the dignity of North Korea’s head of state beyond how it may appear to readers in other countries. By turning up in South Korea in the presence of suited bodyguards, Hwang Pyong-so went further than infringing the sanctity of the Supreme Leader; he made a blunt and arrogant demonstration of power.

The North Korean delegation arrived in the South riding in Kim Jong-un’s plane; but throughout their visit, and in a most anomalous way, a focus on Kim Jong-un’s absolute authority was muted. Under Kim Jong-il’s rule, from expressing appreciation for his loaning of a plane all the way to the letters delivered to North Korean athletes, the delegation would have had to demonstrate their loyalty to the Supreme Leader, and especially in the presence of outside media.

In the past, one was rewarded and punished exclusively on loyalty to Kim Jong-il. Not only because the cadres competed with each other to show more loyalty to Kim Jong-il, but also because they were monitored and judged within a system of inter-locking surveillance mechanisms with regard to their loyalty to Kim Jong-il. He was the focal pivot of power, with not only institutional mechanisms, but even the working culture, prioritising and rewarding a demonstration of loyalty to Kim Jong-il over anything else.

But when Hwang Pyong-so spoke to the North Korean athletes at the Asian Games, he not only failed to thank Kim Jong-un, he did not tell reporters that Kim Jong-un had sent a plane in consideration of a delegation that had come to congratulate the North Korean athletes.

North Korea’s media too was muted in their promotion of Kim Jong-un’s leadership. In the lead-up to the delegation’s visit, there were no articles going overboard with appreciation to Kim Jong-un for supporting the trip. There was no flowery language used to describe Kim Jong-un’s benevolence, that he would loan a plane for the use of the delegation. The PAD made a short statement to the effect that Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon was visiting South Korea.

In fact, Hwang Pyong-so’s delegation actually admitted that the situation with regard to Kim Jong-un was not what it should be. When South Korea’s Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl-jae asked after Kim Jong-un’s health, the reply was that he was well. But to make mention of, let alone inquire of, the Supreme Leader’s ill health falls under the category of “insulting our Supreme Dignity”, and the response should have been a show of anger and stern protest at such a suggestion being made; yet the reply was moderate, as if it had been a normal answer to a normal question.

This is an aberration from a cadre’s fundamentally enforced “conscience and morals”, which must defend the supreme dignity at all costs. Such oversights could not have been tolerated in the past.

Building on such observations, the following appear as main points of note with regards to interpreting the significance of Hwang Pyong-so’s visit.

First, if progress in inter-Korean relations were the objective, it would have been more than enough for South Korean affairs secretary Kim Yang-gon or Chair of National Sports Guidance Committee Choe Ryong-hae to have come on their own; to have Hwang Pyong-so lead the delegation was unnecessarily over the top for such a purpose.

If North Korea had really pursued this move to turn the tables in inter-Korean relations via pursuing high level dialogue between North and South, they could have saved Hwang’s arrival for later, taking smaller ground and have him come to South Korea at a later stage for great effect or perhaps even trading his presence for some other “deliverable”; yet he arrived on the scene so hastily. There was no level of standard planning involved in preparation for, justifying of, or stepped leveraging that is characteristic of North Korea’s negotiation coordination. In fact, the visit was lacking in the concrete for all its boldness.

Second, Hwang Pyong-so arrived at Incheon in military uniform. But North Korea moderates the dispatching of a military delegation to the extreme in terms of inter-Korean relations. Because North Korea’s weak situation is such that its only strategic upper hand is to threaten military action, the dispatch of military delegations is deliberately avoided in order to make the most of that chip via a pretence of compartmentalisation in inter-Korean channels and policy.

But the North Korean delegation that came to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games included not merely a military general, but was headed by the very representative of the North Korean military. This is a move that utterly shatters the coordinated rhythm and advantage of a civilian-military compartmentalisation façade deployed for inter-Korean negotiation cycles, just as meticulously adhered to in the sphere of inter-Korean affairs as the power principles that safeguarded the Supreme Leader’s absolute authority. In playing one of its greatest trump cards, North Korea broke its own fiercely guarded cycle.

Third, the facial expressions of the North Korean delegates suggest that the visit was not in accordance of operational planning principles. North Korean representatives who come to South Korea to engage in inter-Korean negotiations or strategic dialogue employ customary and tactical tools of expressing practised emotional responses adapted for each counterpart, the contents of speech, the atmosphere in the room, and even carefully modulated when responding to reporters’ questions.

Hwang Pyong-so was consistently smiles and modesty. He even engaged in “pleasant talk”; even if we presume for a moment that this was done in diplomatic formality, his facial expressions were personal, and not professional, to the point that it suggested servility.

Nevertheless, most commentators have interpreted Hwang Pyong-so’s visit as demonstrating the stability and security of status quo politics in North Korea with regards to Kim Jong-un and the system’s power elite. Many have actually enthusiastically and fervently picked up after the mess of propaganda and strategic slips that North Korea itself failed to take into account. It truly seems like the media and commentators outside of North Korea have been thoroughly brainwashed by Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship, more thoroughly brainwashed than the North Korean people themselves have been.

Speaking as one who used to serve in the United Front Department, which coordinates inter-Korean affairs, I believe the trip made by Hwang Pyong-so and his delegation is another severe systemic anomaly. It is an event that fundamentally contradicts the power principles of the North Korean political system, as greatly as the execution of Jang Song-thaek did. To put it bluntly, the nature of these developments are without precedent.

Do they have their roots in a transformed dynamic of power among North Korea’s elite leadership, or were these potentially fatal aberrations carefully scripted for the purpose of pursuing progress in inter-Korean relations?

Suppose it is the latter; with North Korea’s leadership facing China’s uncompromising pragmatism, US pressure on its nuclear weapons programs and human rights issues, Japan’s displeasure on the kidnapping issue, and now Europe being unmoved to Kang Sok-ju’s charm offensive, would this really be a most confident move from a high powered inter-Korean delegation, or do North Korea’s elite recognise what those outside do not yet see, that they hold a losing hand?


By Jang Jin-sung.
Read in Korean
Translated and edited by Shirley Lee.

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