In November 2011, Lee (pseudonym) defected from North Korea, and received South Korean citizenship in March this year. In North Korea, Lee worked in the Financial Administration Department of the Central Party. As the most recent high-ranked Party official to defect, he has much knowledge regarding the situation leading up to Kim Jong-il’s death. He agreed to an interview with New Focus under a condition of anonymity.
New Focus: When did you defect?
Lee: I defected in November last year and received South Korean citizenship on March 22nd of this year.
NF: What did you do in North Korea?
Lee: I worked for Section 1 of the Central Party’s Financial Administration Department.
NF: Can you tell us about the department and what Section 1 refers to?
Lee: The department is responsible for supplying resources for use by the Central Party, sourcing from both abroad and domestically. Section 1 is specifically responsible for securing resources for use by staff in Central Party HQ No. 3. Sections 8 and 9 of the department, for example, sources food and supplies for Kim’s household. This is why resources for Kim Il-sung were labelled No. 8 Resources while those that were for Kim Jong-il were labelled No. 9 Resources. Section 15 of the department was responsible for Kim Jong-il’s health.
NF: We understand that you were in charge of Section 3 of the Financial Administration Department. According to the latest reports, Office 35, which is responsible for overseas espionage, and the United Front Department, which is responsible for inter-Korean espionage, are the only sections that remain under Central Party auspices. The Foreign Liaison Bureau is said to have been transferred to the Reconnaissance Bureau or brought under government auspices. Are these reports true?
Lee: Yes. When Oh Geuk-ryul of the Strategic Command was made a Vice-Chairman of the National Defence Commission, various sections which had been supplying the Strategic Command were also transferred to the NDC by being subsumed under the Sungsan Trading Company, which trades under NDC auspices. Basic operational sections such as Communication Offices 131 and 128, which manage agents for South Korea operations, were brought under the MPAF Reconnaissance Bureau. Divisions responsible for equipment used in South Korea operations such as Office 144 were transferred under the NDC by being absorbed into the Third Academy of Natural Sciences. Even ‘situational offices’, which form the heart of the Strategic Command, were absorbed by the Reconaissance Bureau.
NF: What are ‘situational offices’?
Lee: It’s Strategic Command jargon. Ordinary North Koreans refer to the offices by their location in North Korea, such as ‘Chongjin Office’, ‘Haeju Office’ etc. However, each office has a ‘true’ name which refers to their equivalent area of effect in South Korea, when implementing rapid communications disturbances in the South. In internal jargon, these are called ‘situational offices’. For example, ‘Cheonbuk Situational Office’ is reponsible for Cheonbuk in South Korea, ‘Busan Situational Office’ for Busan in South Korea, etc.
NF: Apart from the Strategic Command, how did other departments for inter-Korean operations fare?
Lee: The Foreign Liaison Bureau remains as it is, but was brought under government auspices. In administrative terms, it has become a domestic concern. Nevertheless, its sphere of operations remains the same as before, and it continues to hold the same rights as when it was under Party auspices.
Office 35 and the United Front Department remain under Party auspices as before. As the UFD is responsible for handling religious leaders and other public figures, its right to Party guidance and related authority remains untouched.
NF: Does this mean that Central Party HQ No. 3 is no more?
Lee: In effect, yes. Having had the Strategic Command, Foreign Liaison Bureau and the United Front Department in its remit previously, with only the latter remaining now, it is more a section than a HQ.
NF: What was the reason for removing the Strategic Command and Foreign Liaison Bureau from Central Party auspices?
Lee: The catalyst for it was the ‘Communications Office No. 46 incident’. Communications Office No. 46 belonged to the Strategic Command, and was responsible for translating and adapting foreign intelligence videos for use in strategic planning. Staff from Office No. 46 in Nampo attempted to leave a restaurant in 2006 without paying the bill, using their membership in the Central Party as leverage. When the manager refused to give them a tab and asked them to pay, they apparently beat him. In any case, this account ended up being delivered directly to Kim Jong-il. Around this time, there were many other accounts circulating of Strategic Command personnel abusing Party privileges, which were leading to a growing public resentment.
These men belonged in the shadows. But when supplies and resources ceased to be distributed centrally with the collapse of the state economy, they were led to enter into the visible spheres. As resentment that they were using their Central Party affiliation as open leverage began to surface, Kim Jong-il ordered that their affiliations be revoked. Not long afterwards, in 2007, Kim ordered for membership cuts to the Central Party on the grounds that the Central Party had become ‘obese’ and must therefore begin to focus on specifics instead of doing everything.
NF: Can you tell us more about the Central Party cuts?
Lee: In 2009, as the Central Party cuts were implemented in earnest, around a hundred officials ranked supervisor or above had their Central Party affiliation revoked. This is a large number, once you take into account the number of divisions and employees under each official of that rank. It was on this occasion that the sections for South Korea operations were removed from Central Party auspices.
In 2010, the Central Party was completely reshuffled. Older officials were sent into retirement. Gyae Eung-tae, Han Sung-ryong and Cheon Byung-ho were among them, with only Kim Kuk-tae and Kim Ki-nam remaining from that generation. Central Party positions previously determined according to specific responsibilities were turned into posts of concurrent responsibilities. In this way, further positions were cut.
The Central Party cuts were in part triggered by a clash with the Korean People’s Army in 2007. The KPA said that because we were living in Songun (military-first policy) times, Kim Jong-il’s health was their charge and must therefore take the Foundational Sciences Institute under its wings. The Central Party officials concerned fought vehemently against this proposal. The popular belief was that what the KPA actually wanted was the ‘Daesung Cigarette Factory’ and its export privileges, which the Foundational Sciences Institute held.
The Daesung Cigarette Factory is run by the Foundational Sciences Institute, which is responsible for medical research that is relevant to prolonging the Kims’ lifespans, and they can work on manufacturing cigarettes to be used by members of the Kim household. The factory works in collaboration with Singaporean companies, and its products are exported worldwide as ‘made in Singapore’, primarily under the brand of ‘Craven’. Kim Jong-il, in line with his statement that the Party was too ‘obese’, gave the factory to the KPA, which was then moved under the National Defence Commission.
NF: You mentioned earlier that the Third Academy of Natural Sciences was brought under the National Defence Commission. What does it do and why does it come under the NDC?
Lee: The Third Academy of Natural Sciences is an unpublicized research institute for the development of arms. They develop weapons for large-scale terrorist attacks, as well producing smaller types of weapons useful for terrorists. Also under NDC auspices falls the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, where research and development of KPA equipment takes place. The importance of military research is recognised and that is why these research institutes come under the NDC. In effect, competition is created against the Second Economic Steering Commission, which oversees the military industry complex. Moreover, the founding director of the Third Academy of Natural Sciences was Kim Il-chul of the KPA; in this way, the science academy position could be held concurrently with a KPA position.
NF: It’s surprising to hear that such practical offices have been set up under NDC auspices. What does this mean for the overall direction of the NDC?
Lee: The NDC did not begin as a permanent and established entity. Yet it has now absorbed almost all of the rights of the government and of the Central Standing Committee. Office 87, the specialist monitoring section for martial law, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of People’s Security, the KPA, Foundational Sciences Institute, Chosun Sports Steering Committee, and Third Academy of Natural Sciences are among those entities that have been absorbed into NDC affiliation. When you examine the identification documents of employees at the Chosun Sports Steering Committee for example, you will see their affiliation written: “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, National Defence Commission, Chosun Sports Steering Committee”.
NF: It is said that the ‘7.27’ numberplate has emerged as representing an affiliation to the highest authority in the DPRK; is this the numberplate of the NDC?
Lee: No, the existing ‘2.16’ number-plates have changed their numbers to ‘7.27’. This happened while Kim Jong-il was still alive. ‘7.27’ refers to the ‘day of victory’ for the DPRK in the Korean War; under the military-first policy it has the greatest significance of all days. To associate power with having ‘7.27’ as your number-plate enhances the atmosphere of competitiveness between Pyongyang residents, as well as guiding the competitive spirit to be in line with the state’s Songun policy.
NF: Regarding the appointment of Choe Ryong-hae as Chair of the General Political Bureau, some people have interpreted this as a sign of Kim Jong-un’s increasing consolidation of power. What are your thoughts on this?
Lee: That is a mistaken hypothesis, because Kim Jong-il had actually had in mind for Choe to become the next Chair of the General Political Bureau. Effectively, the assignment is about Kim Jong-il’s legacy and will being implemented. Back in 2010 when Kim Jong-il was still alive, he bestowed the title of General on Kim Kyong-hee, Kim Jong-un, Kim Kyong-ok and Choe Ryong-hae. Even before this, Kim Jong-il already set in motion the granting of military authority to Choe Ryong-hae, as part of larger arrangements for a stable power transfer to Kim Jong-un taking place. It has been old news for those in military circles. To think Choe’s appointment is due to Kim Jong-un’s independent consolidation of power can only be nonsensical speculation.
NF: Who are considered the players to watch by current North Korean officials?
Lee: Within the Party: Kim Kyong-hee (Kim Jong-il’s younger sister), Kim Kyong-ok (Central Party Organisation Military Director), Park Do-chun (Central Party Munitions Secretary), Cho Yeon-jun (Central Party Organisation Chair), Min Byung-chul (Central Party Organisation Monitoring Chair). Within the Supreme People’s Assembly: Yang Hyung-sup (Kim Jong-il’s uncle-in-law, Kim Il-sung’s father Kim Hyung-jik’s younger brother Kim Hyung-rok’s son-in-law). Within the military,: Choe Ryong-hae, Kim Jong-gak. Within government: Choe Young-rim. Ro Du-chul is considered a mover in government (Deputy Prime Minister of Government and Director of the National Planning Committee). Finally, within the Foreign Ministry: Kang Sok-ju.
NF: What was considered breaking news in North Korea while you were there?
Lee: The most representative story is that of the door of the Mangyongdae (Kim Il-sung’s alleged birthplace) being stolen. When I was telling the story in a private occasion, I discovered that it had already seeped out of the country through various defector channels. The story broke around March last year. According to the accounts, a 3rd year dropout from Kim Il-sung University’s Physics Department heard that if anyone obtained a door from Mangyongdae, they’d be awarded 50,000 US Dollars. He made meticulous plans and schemed with a staff member at Mangyongdae. While the employee distracted the guards, the ex-student removed the kitchen door from its hinges. It was probably not too difficult because the doors are not nailed or screwed, but assembled through traditional joining techniques.
NF: What about news regarding political figures?
Lee: There was a famous case regarding an incident in North Hamgyong. When Kim Jong-il went for a visit in May of last year, he had criticised the province for its corruption, calling it a ‘sewage pit’. Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Ki-nam were dispatched to North Hamgyong to inspect the province. As a result of their visit, the Party Secretary for North Hamgyong, Hong Seok-hyung (grandson of Hong Myung-hee), and other officials such as Security Director for North Hamgyung, Administrative Chair, the Director of Communications and other contracted officials were arrested. The Director of Communications, in particular, had been selling mobile phones on the black market; but instead of offering the proceeds to the state, he had been keeping them to himself. This was said to be the biggest crime of all the crimes.
NF: What are your thoughts on developments in North Korea in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death?
Lee: I defected before the event so I am not sure. I would like to restrict my comments to what I know.