Kim Jong-un is not in charge. Then who is?

Wednesday 25th December, 2013

After the fall of Jang Song-thaek, many saw the removal of such a supposedly influential figure as evidence of Kim Jong-un’s absolute power. But the public purging and execution of Jang Song-thaek at once exposes Kim Jong-un’s lack of power and the attempts of Kim Jong-il’s associates to uphold a power structure that lacks an unquestioned head.

Our analysis is based on an understanding of Kim Jong-il era politics from within, and according to its internal structure rather than its external manifestations.

In this series, we provide an overview of differences between the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un systems, in an attempt to provide a clearer understanding of both. Here is the link to our first and second installments, which focus on the visible presentational and procedural differences between the Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un eras.

We present our final installment in two halves: here, we focus on differences in content, to show who is driving the events. In the next installment, we show where these events are heading.

To reveal Jang Song-thaek’s ‘womanising’ is an overt attack on the prestige of Kim Kyong-hui.

In North Korea’s official statement of the Politburo decision condemning Jang Song-thaek, there are mentions of his personal life and ‘womanising’. It may have been rumoured in the outside world that Kim Kyong-hui and Jang Song-thaek did not have a close relationship as a couple; but within North Korea, it is blasphemy of the highest order to comment at all on a member of the Kim family as an ordinary human being, let alone comment on details of his or her personal life.

The outside world may mock accusations of sexual impropriety as petty attacks on Jang Song-thaek’s reputation, but for North Koreans, this official message is unprecedented. Was Kim Jong-il’s own sister held in such contempt by her husband? How could the ruling Kim be a holy divinity with his family members exposed to be so corrupt and fallen?

There couldn’t be a more shocking and unsettling threat to the legitimacy of the North Korean state than a confession of imperfection at the heart of the Kim family.

The Politburo meeting chaired by Kim Jong-un needed so urgently to undermine Jang Song-thaek that it infringed, and then destroyed, the previously untouchable sanctity of the Kim family – a sanctity which underpins the legitimacy of the North Korean state.

To attribute criminal and factional charges to Jang Song-thaek is more than enough as a message confirming his eternal removal and disassociation from the Kim family. The additional charge of ‘womanising’ is unnecessary for such a removal and utterly destroys the sanctity, prestige and legitimacy of Kim-family based sanctity and power.

In the kinship society of North Korea, guilt by association formally convicts family members of a political criminal and imbues him or her with shared responsibility for a crime committed by one of their own. But the principle of guilt by association is never applied within the Kim family itself.

Several close members of the Kim family have defected and so the enforcement of the principle within the Kim family is impossible. In fact, if it was enforced, Kim Jong-un himself would be in a political concentration camp.

Not only was the pointed and very deliberate attack on the prestige of Kim Kyong-hui carried out without regard for a ruling Kim-centred authority, it was completely unnecessary and profoundly self-destructive if its goal had been the neutralisation of Jang Song-thaek in order to strengthen Kim Jong-un’s personal authority.

The orchestration of these events was not controlled by those whose political power depends on the nominal power structure visible to outsiders, but on the separate and clandestine structure of executive and enforceable power.

There is only one chain of command with the power to destroy Jang Song-thaek in this way, and this is the Organisation and Guidance Department of Kim Jong-il’s era.

Not only are they the only entity that could enforce the purge of Jang Song-thaek, but the rivalry between the OGD and Jang Song-thaek had to come to a head after the bloody confrontations of 1997-2000, which we will address in a later post.

Jang Song-thaek’s subsequent establishment of power relied on his grip on business and trading rights, and he was both protected and constrained by his status as a side-branch of the Kim family. In Kim Jong-il’s era, Jang Song-thaek was kept on side through balancing the man’s immunity by marriage to the Kim family against his status as a side-branch of the Kim family.

If Kim Jong-un was truly at the helm and in control, and if risking his own cult prestige in conducting the purge was merely a miscalculation, the OGD must not have allowed this mistake to happen.

If Kim Jong-un were acknowledged by the OGD as the true holder of absolute authority, the OGD must have protected his prestige at all costs.

Above all, the executive structure of the OGD, with full chain of command over the nation’s surveillance and physical enforcement institutions, is such that it is impossible for Kim Jong-un to have overruled it at his whim, let alone coordinate events without their knowledge.

Kim Jong-un did not speak at the Politburo meeting.

At the top of the official Politburo account of Jang Song-thaek’s purge, there is a statement that “Comrade Kim Jong-un chaired the Politburo meeting.” But neither in the section that records the proceedings of the meeting nor in the final decision of the purge, do the words of Kim Jong-un feature at all.

For the ruling Kim’s words to go unreported, and for his voice to be so absent in the record of the meeting, is yet another in the list of unprecedented and overwhelmingly abnormal features of this meeting. Such an omission speaks very loud and clear to any North Korean elite reading the account.

In any meeting chaired by Kim Jong-il, the proceedings always began with ‘Great Guidance’ from the Dear Leader; and whatever the outcome or decision, it was invariably ended with Kim Jong-il’s ‘Great Conclusion’. But in this Politburo meeting, there is only a feeble mention of the ruling Kim’s authority, and no mention of it at all in the conclusion.

It is no exaggeration to say Kim Jong-un’s role was as a mere manikin, a prop to legitimise the meeting. There are absolutely no words attributed to him regarding the crimes or the conclusion that was reached, both of which would have been prerequisites for the force of law to be applied to a meeting in Kim Jong-il’s era.

In this way, in a meeting where the ruler’s uncle had his most intimate and shameful ‘crimes’ detailed, Kim Jong-un was present on the surface but absent in essence and in authority.

If Kim Jong-un really did feel anger at his uncle and had directed the whole episode, or if there were some individual using Kim Jong-un as a puppet, the emphasis on Kim Jong-un’s control and authority over the faction of Jang Song-thaek would have been the key priority of the propaganda infrastructure.

It is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the insult to the prestige of the Kim family was aimed not just at Kim Kyong-hui, but at Kim Jong-un himself. The driving force behind the purge is far more than an entity that can ignore the superficial structures of power: it is a system strong enough to demonstrate to the elite that it can and will do so with impunity.

It is to the OGD that everyone in the elite must answer. If there is a Big Brother in North Korea, it is the Organisation and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers’ Party. Unfortunately, interpretations of recent events have yet to consider the central role of the entity that coordinates the North Korean system.

Here are the names of the most powerful men in today’s North Korea:

  • Cho Yon Jun – OGD First Deputy Director with lines of command over organisational structures
  • Hwang Pyong So – OGD First Deputy Director with lines of command over military structures
  • Kim Kyong Ok  – OGD First Deputy Director with lines of command over surveillance structures

It is these men who hold the reins of executive power and enforcement in North Korea, and not the people most publicly recognised outside North Korea as being in control.

Even more than the individuals, however, it is the structure and shape of the OGD that matters. This entity controls the power elite of North Korea; in Kim Jong-il’s time it was the OGD directors who negotiated between the power elite and Kim Jong-il, each according to his own area of responsibility.

No ordinary North Korean has access to the structure, and even members of the elite can know only about sections directly relevant to them.

Collaborative studies with high-level exiles and internal correspondents over the years have at last led us to a picture of an OGD that has five sections and thirty-eight sub-divisions.

The nature of the system is such that no one person can see all of it at once: the only way to perceive a comprehensive overview is for those who were part of the power system (and therefore understand the significance of the OGD) to share and combine their knowledge with others who still remain within it.

This is why it’s not just fragments of knowledge about North Korea that counts, but the experience-based understandings that bring the fragments to cohesion and coherence.

This synthesis can only be achieved when those within the system communicate beyond its compartmentalisation and atomisation which, along with the liberal use of proxies and publicised elite power rankings, was what kept Kim Jong-il’s power structure from being truly understood – and therefore manipulated – by individual North Koreans or by the outside world.

In our final installment of this series, we will discuss where the system is heading.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for North Korea’s systemic realities. After the Kim Jong-un power myth is debunked, there are more important strands to be explored in this story: the structural details of the crucial but neglected OGD and the dynastic alliances that control North Korea’s business and trade interests.

The internal significance of Jang Song-thaek’s purge and execution can only be found at the intersection of such strands.

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