Guest Column: Old Generation of North Korean Elite Remain Active

Wednesday 31st July, 2013

This is a guest post by Nicolas Levi, who is a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences and on Korean Issues at the Poland Asia Research Center ( He holds a PhD on the North-Korean leadership, and his website ( focuses on North Korea.

Several Pyongyang-watchers believe that changes are taking place within the North Korean leadership. According to the Chosun Ilbo, Kim Ok (a former wife of Kim Jong Il and an advisor to the Kim family) and her father Kim Hyo (an employee in the Accounting Department of the Korean Workers’ Party) have been dismissed. Do these departures indicate changes in the North Korean leadership?

We must be circumspect about announcements like these. For instance, there are many reasons why Kim Hyo, a man in his 90s, might leave his post. Nevertheless, some believe that a new generation of leaders is already ruling over North Korea.

Yet we cannot underestimate the role of the “old” leadership of North Korea – people born in the 30s who still play an important part in the political system. In spite of their age and health, these people are still prominent in the main political structures of North Korea. This piece will aim to demonstrate that they remain active in directing policy.

A dynamic old leadership

The key associates of Kim Jong Il (Kim Ki Nam, Kim Yong Nam, Yang Hyong Sop, Kim Yong Jun, Pak Jae Kyong and Ju Kyu Jang) have retained their positions in the North Korean leadership. They are even reappearing at public inspections.

For instance, Kim Yong Nam (1 in the picture below) and Yang Hyong Sop (2 in the picture below) were seen in July visiting Sepo Tableland in Kangwon Province.


There are members of the old leadership who consistently appear with Kim Jong Eun during his meetings with Chinese leaders. One of them is Kim Sung Nam, vice director of the International Department of the Korean Workers’ Party, who was an advisor to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and now advises Kim Jong Eun.

They may be providing advice on dealing with Chinese officials. It’s worth pointing out here that there are few signs of real change in the Chinese leadership, and current leaders are often relatives of the former Chinese leadership.

The old North Korean leadership has been showing an interest in new technology. Choe Thae Bok, who is a member of the Politburo and the Secretariat of the Workers’ Party of Korea, is relatively old (b. 1930) but enjoys traveling abroad and, according to western sources, is open to new technology.

It has been suggested that his family is involved in related business activities. In the picture below, the old guard of Kim Jong Il is shown as being familiar with mobile phones: Kim Yang Gon (CC KWP Secretary and Director of the United Front Department) and Kang Sok Ju (Deputy Prime Minister of North Korea) are seen with mobile phones.


Each is also known for having exceptional linguistic skills: Kim Yang Gon speaks Russian, Chinese and English while Kang Sok is known to have mastered French and English.

Health issues and the old leadership

Age is taking a toll on the health of some North Korean leaders. Kim Jong Il smoked even when he was seriously ill, and Kim Jong Jun, a former leader of the North Korean army, is known for obesity and kidney problems.


Nevertheless, he is still present at official meetings between North Korean officials and foreigners. This suggests that he is still a prominent figure.

Kim Kyung Hee, Kim Jong Eun’s aunt, is also notorious for problems with alcoholism. She has been treated in Beijing and likely in Germany, though it’s interesting to note that her husband Jang Song Thaek was refused a visa to Germany.

Other members of the old leadership seem to be in robust health. We have already mentioned Choe Thae Bok who, in spite of his age, is still involved in North Korean foreign affairs. He has also often been seen to be involved in discussion of economic issues with foreign partners. According to Pyongyang sources, Choe Thae Bok is in particularly good health.

Concluding words

All of this suggests that keeping the old generation of leaders at the top of North Korea’s leadership structure constitutes a part of the strategy of the Kim family. Not only have these people retained their posts, but members of their families have also been appointed to special positions within the North Korean system.

We may note in particular the involvement of a son of Kim Pyong Hae, a CC KWP Secretary in foreign affairs and involved in issues to do with business relations with China; and the daughter of Kim Yong Il, an officer of the MOFA and a former ambassador to Malta, who is also working in this political structure.

Maintaining the old leadership means promoting members of their families to key posts. In a new North Korea, we can perhaps imagine the relatives of the old generation of the leadership controlling the economic direction of the country, and these may be key figures to introduce change into the North Korean economy.

Those associated with North Korean companies trading under military auspices with foreign partners, and companies that are independent of the military framework, may be ones to watch.

But as long as the old leadership maintains a strong position in North Korea, it is difficult to predict the future policy of this country; evidence of their true inclinations may appear after the death of the old generation.

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