Interview: A recent Central Party defector

In November 2011, Lee (pseudonym) defected from North Korea. After going through Hanawon (an induction program for North Korean defectors who wish to settle into South Korean society), he received South Korean citizenship in March this year. In North Korea, Lee worked in the Financial Administration Department of the Central Party Committee. 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 of March 22nd of this year.

NF: What did you do in North Korea?

Lee: After a stint in the Ministry of Labour, 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 securing resources for use by the Central Party Committee, both sourcing from abroad and domestically. Section 1 is specifically responsible for securing resources for use by staff in Central Party Office No. 3. Sections 8 and 9, for example, source food and equipment for Kim’s household. This is why resources for Kim Il-sung were labelled Resource No. 8, while those that were for Kim Jong-il were labelled Resource No.9. 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 deals with foreign intelligence, and the United Front Department, which is referred to as the North Korean window into South Korea, are the only sections that remain under control of the Central Party. The Centre for Strategy, Department of Foreign Liaison and the Department of Reconnaissance have all been transferred to come under government control. Are these reports true?

Lee: Yes. When Oh Geuk-ryul from the Centre for Strategy was made vice-Chairman of the National Defence Commission, the various departments which had been supplying the Centre for Strategy with resources were also transferred to the NDC by being subsumed under the Sungsan Trading Company, which trades under NDC auspices. Communication Offices 131 and 128, which conduct anti-South Korean operations, were moved under the KPA Reconaissance Department. Offices that were responsible for developing equipment for anti-South Korean operations such as Office 144 were transferred to come under the direct command of the NDC by being absorbed by the Third Academy of Natural Sciences. Even ‘situational offices’, which are at the heart of the Centre for Strategy, were absorbed by the KPA Reconaissance Department.

NF: What are ‘situational offices’?

Lee: It’s Centre for Strategy jargon. Ordinary North Koreans refer to official communication branches by their location in North Korea, such as ‘Chongjin Office’, ‘Haeju Office’ etc. However, each communications branch has a ‘true’ name which refers to their equivalent area of effect in South Korea, in preparation for rapid communications disturbances against the South. In the 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 Centre for Strategy, how did other departments for anti-South Korea activities fare?

Lee: The Department of Foreign Liaison remains as it is, but was moved to government control. In technical terms, it has become an internal concern. Nevertheless, its sphere of operations remains the same as it was, and it continues to hold the same authority as when it was under the Party command.

Office 35 and the United Front Department remain under Party control. As the UFD is responsible for dealing with religious leaders and other prominent public figures, its Party-related authority and prestige was untouched and was left alone.

NF: Does this mean that Central Party Office No. 3 is no more?

Lee: In effect, yes. Having had the Centre for Strategy, Department of Foreign Liaison and the United Front Department in its remit, only the latter remains now.

NF: Why was the Centre for Strategy and Department of Foreign Liaison removed from the Central Party?

Lee: The catalyst for it was the so-called ‘Communications Office No. 46 incident’. Communications Office No. 46 had been under the Party’s Centre for Strategy, and was responsible for studying and translating foreign intelligence videos for use in strategic planning. According to the story, some staff from Office No. 46 in Nampo attempted to leave a restaurant in 2006 without paying the bill, using their positions as Central Party members as leverage. When the manager refused to give them a tab and asked them to pay, they allegedly 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 Centre for Strategy staff abusing their Party privileges, which led to a growing public resentment.

These employees usually worked in the shadows. It was apparently when supplies and resources ceased to be distributed with the collapsing economy that they began to protest and thus entered the public mind. As the belief that they were using their Central Party membership as leverage in open confrontations became widespread, Kim Jong-il ordered that their Central Party membership be revoked. Not long afterwards in 2007, Kim ordered for membership cuts to the Central Party. The official reason was that the Central Party had become ‘obese’ and must therefore begin to focus on specific things instead of meddling in all spheres.

NF: Can you tell us more about the Central Party cuts?

Lee: In 2009, as part of the Central Party cuts, around a hundred officials in supervisory roles had their Central Party membership revoked. This is a big number, once you take into account that each official has dozens of staff members working under them. It was on this occasion that the anti-South Korea Operations Department was removed from the Central Party.

In 2010, the Central Party was completely reshuffled. Firstly, older Central Party officials were put into retirement. Gyae Eung-tae, Han Sung-ryong and Cheon Byung-ho were among them, and only Kim Kuk-tae and Kim Ki-nam remain from that generation. Secondly, Central Party posts which had previously been organised according to individual responsibilities, took on a form whereby more than one post could be held concurrently. In this way, further posts could be 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 they 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, who are responsible for medical research that is relevant to prolonging the Kims’ lifespans, so that they can work on cigarettes to be used by members of the Kim household. The factory works in collaboration with Singapore, 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 came 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 weaponry. They develop weapons for large-scale terrorist attacks, as well producing smaller types of weapons useful for terrorists. Also under the NDC 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 such research institutes come under the NDC. In effect, competition is created with 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 would be held concurrently with a KPA position.

NF: It’s surprising to hear that such practical offices have been set up within the NDC. 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 authority of the Government and the Central Standing Committee. Office 87, the specialist monitoring department of the authorities of 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 by the NDC. 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 numberplate increases the atmosphere of competitiveness between Pyongyang residents, as well as guiding this competitive spirit to be in line with the regime’s Songun policy.

NF: Regarding the assignment of Choi Ryong-hae as Chair of the General Political Department, 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 actually it was Kim Jong-il who had planned for Choi to become the next Chair of the General Political Department. Effectively, the assignment shows Kim Jong-il’s will being carried out. Back in 2010 when Kim Jong-il was still alive, he bestowed the title of General on Kim Kyung-hee, Kim Jong-un, Kim Gyung-ok and Choi Ryong-hae. Even before this, Kim Jong-il already set in motion the granting of military authority to Choi Ryong-hae, in order that a stable power transfer to Kim Jong-un could take place. It has been old news for those in the military circle. To think Choi’s assignment is related to Kim Jong-un’s independent consolidation of power can only be wild guessing.

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 Hyun-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,: Choi Ryong-hae, Kim Jong-gak. Within government: Choi Young-rim. Nevertheless, Ro Du-chul is the mover behind government (Deputy Prime Minister of Government and Director of the National Planning Committee). Finally, within the Foreign Ministry: Gang 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 Mangyundae (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 Mangyundae, they’d be awarded 50,000 US Dollars. He made meticulous plans and schemed with a staff member at Mangyungdae. 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 Hamgyung. 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’. Choi Ryong-hae and Kim Ki-nam were dispatched to North Hamgyung to inspect the province. As a result of their visit, the Party Secretary for North Hamgyung, 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 them all.

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.

Like this article? Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter!