North Korea’s Theater of the Absurd and the New Number Two’s

February 13, 2014

It seems as though North Korea’s “number two candidates” are the star roles for the Kim Regime’s version of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Jang Song-thaek’s recent execution has raised a number of questions about the Kim Family Regime: What drives these purges? What do they mean? What do they say about the stability of the regime and how it functions?  These are all the right questions, but most of the analysis out there is not providing the right answers.

The North Korean regime’s theater of the absurd has been illustrated, most recently, by the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong-Un. Jang’s execution has left much of the world’s political pundits dumbfounded as to the “why,” “how,” and “what’s next.”  The international media’s speculation on wild stories such as Jang being executed by hungry dogs ripping him apart or Jang sleeping with Kim Jong-un’s wife only added to the surrealism surrounding this episode of Al Capone-like justice. Even Jang’s relatives – sister, brother in-law, nephew and their sons, daughters and grandchildren – have been put to death.  In the North Korean legal system, whole families must suffer the fate of the criminal, especially when the crime is against the Kim Regime.

Because of the level of Jang’s abuse of power and the threat he posed to Kim Jong-un’s authority, Jang’s execution was by far the most critical event to date since Kim Jong-un replaced his father as the North Korean leader. The dramatic removal of Jang from positions of power, including Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission, Director of the Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee’s Administration Department, and administrator of some of North Korea’s most productive foreign currency earning operations (FCEO), created a political oversight vacuum within most of those agencies.  The charges against Jang were “stacked” with the accusations covering the areas of economic, political, ethical and even the whimsical, such as not clapping hard enough for the Kim family.  But much of this was fictional scriptwriting of which even Eugene Ionesco would be proud.

The Downfall of Jang Song-thaek

The story of Jang’s downfall requires some understanding of the North Korean socio-political system, which places maximum emphasis on personal and institutional surveillance and loyalty. As such, it is very difficult to create independent organizations – social, political, “factions,” or otherwise – that support individuals other than the supreme leader, or political agendas other than those of the party and the supreme leader.  Therefore, individuals of influence develop “lines” of personal contacts and supporters who become their “men” or “network of influence” who then manipulate institutions for their political and/or economic gain.   Jang, because of his connection to the Kim Family as husband of Kim Jong-un’s aunt, came close to establishing his own power base and certainly developed an extensive line of supporters.

Using this influence, Jang committed perhaps the greatest crime a member of the North Korean elite can commit: he made a profit and did not give the regime a cut.  Paying into the supreme leader’s “revolutionary funds” is an absolute requirement for all FCEOs. Jang’s control of a wide number of foreign currency-earning organizations enabled him to accumulate one billion dollars, which were deposited in the Bank of Shanghai.  Kim Jong-un wanted access to these funds but Jang’s men – primarily Administration Department 1st Vice-Director Ri Yong-ha and Vice-Director Jang Su-gil – mishandled the money to the point that the Chinese government shut down the account.  In December 2013, Jang confessed his crimes before a military tribunal. He was branded a “traitor for all ages” and executed shortly thereafter.

The Bank of Shanghai episode was Jang’s last rodeo, but unbeknownst to many observers, it wasn’t his first. For Kim Jong-un and others, this was likely the last straw in Jang’s long history of abusing his authority, a history that reveals much about the opaque North Korean regime.

From Transgressor to Strongman: Jang’s “Revolutionary Re-Education”

Indeed, throughout his career, Jang Song-thaek frequently overstepped his bounds, bringing trouble down on those close to him.  As husband to the princess of the empire, he was spared many deserved punishments.  However, before his execution, Jang in fact twice received “revolutionary reeducation” for bad behavior. Such “re-education” is a common form of punishment within the Kim regime, if the sentence is not death or banishment to a political prison death camp. The transgressor is sent down to the common worker’s level to learn the lessons of the revolution through hard labor. As early as the 1970’s, Jang was accused of starting a “secret party” and sent to a work in a regional factory.  And in 2004, he was accused of “factional activities” and prevented from working altogether, a form of house arrest.

After returning from his second “revolutionization” experience in 2007, Jang was actually rewarded by his brother-in-law, Kim Jong-il, with an appointment as Director of the very influential Administration Department (AD) of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).  At the time, the KWP Administration Department was part of the KWP’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), an institution expanded in power and influence under Kim Jong-il to the point of it being referred to by party bureaucrats as the “party within the party.”  The OGD’s primary responsibility is maintaining the stability of the regime by requiring loyalty from every North Korean, with a focus on the elite. Only the elite of the elite and the most loyal of the most loyal are permitted to work in the OGD.  Concurrent with Jang’s appointment to the AD, Kim Jong-il separated that department from the OGD, thus creating natural barriers between the two organizations.

The mission of Jang’s AD was political oversight (not command) of the State Security Department (North Korea’s secret police), the Ministry of Public Security (national police force), the courts, the judges, the prosecutors, and the lawyers.  The Administration Department also oversaw a significant number of FCEO’s (though it does not do so not any longer).  In other words, Jang had political watch over of the regime’s internal security apparatus and significant profit-making operations, a very powerful position indeed. The AD has subordinate offices down at the provincial (9), separate city, and county (145) levels.  These offices are integral to the party committees at those levels.  From those subordinate offices, Jang was able to influence the party-state’s internal security and FCEO’s at the micro level.  The combination of those two authorities is what got Jang in trouble for abusing of power.  Everybody that worked for Jang in the KWP AD at each of its levels had been able to leverage their influence for self-aggrandizement. Now, many of those officials will pay severely for their choice of loyalty.

Reporting from a North Korean refugees’ organization suggests that in April 2011, Kim Jong-il gave Jang even more power by appointing him to oversee several FCEO’s.  One of those was Department 54 of the General Political Bureau., which was responsible for manufacturing or acquiring soldier equipment and clothing.  Jang then promoted Department 54 Director, Jang Su-kil (no known relation), to be one of his close aides as a vice director within the AD.  Jang Su-kil, Administration Department 1st Vice Director, Ri Yong-ha, the party secretary of Department 54, and the Political Department Director of the Ministry of Public Security (national police) were known to become Jang Song-thaek’s three closest subordinates.

Then, however, the Department 54 party secretary began reporting secretly to the General Political Bureau (the military’s political commissar organization headed by Vice-Marshal Choi Ryong-hae) about Jang Song-thaek’s corruption and the General Political Bureau reported this directly to Kim Jong-un.  Jang once again miscalculated his influence and power and the effectiveness of his subordinates.  Consequently, the purging process began, with Jang Su-kil and Ri Yong-ha being the first two to be executed. The execution of Jang himself, of course, followed shortly thereafter.

The Aftermath of Jang’s Execution

Once Jang was executed, a number of his other subordinates were also purged and put to death. The purging process, which will likely take several weeks or months to complete, expanded immediately after the ceremonies observing the 2nd anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death when the Kim Jong-un Regime initiated a “purification” of the KWP AD and other organizations headed by Jang. “Purification teams” were established to clean up the remnants of Jang’s impact on the party and the government. This effort is predictably led by the OGD and the State Security Department (SSD).  Their joint mission was and is to “seek out those cadre paying blind obedience to “Jang’s mini-kingdom” and “relieve them of their duties, fire them, and remove them from the party.” All of the KWP Administration Department senior personnel will be replaced by cadre from other party organizations, primarily from the Organization and Guidance Department.  Beginning this year, each of the regional KWP Committees’ (province, city and county levels) Administration Departments will be reorganized and “confusion removed.”  (In a bizarre twist,  the State Security Department was actually investigating itself, but not for the first time.  During the infamous “Shimwajo” incident a decade ago, also complicated by Jang Song-thaek, the SSD gutted itself of investigators who overzealously arrested innocents.  In the end, 25,000 people were purged.)

Furthermore, the Kim regime “will drastically reduce the KWP-level Administration Department’s function of conducting, monitoring and evaluating the party life (a critical function for every party, military and government bureaucrat in the Kim Regime) of members of the security agencies and the judicial system.” This is especially significant because this function will pass from the AD to the extremely politically powerful Party Life Guidance Division of the Organization and Guidance Department which is responsible for evaluating the loyalty of every senior official in the party, the government, the military and every social organization.

Jang also supervised the National Athletic Guidance Committee, the National Economic Development Committee, and the Special Zone Development Bureau.*  Cadre from these organizations will be “purified” and removed as well. Of note, the leaders of these organizations, Kim Ki-sok, Kim Chol-jin, and Yoon Hong-sok will be “investigated for ideological issues.” The KWP AD will no longer have any relationship with Department 54 or any other FCEO, including those of the military and the cabinet.  But the government organizations hit the hardest will be the internal security agencies and the courts.  This development bodes very poorly for the regime’s stability as the internal security agencies will quickly weaken through a 1-2 year adjustment to new political leadership and a likely increase in corruption and ineffective performance by working-level officials.

The Jang episode is clearly sending shock waves through the regime. The winners in this Kafkaesque drama, at least temporarily, are Kim Jong-un and a number of potential new “number twos.” These include Vice-Marshal Choi Ryong-hae, the General Political Bureau Director who developed the information for which the Jang AD purges were conducted; General Kim Won-hung, the Director of the State Security Department (SSD) which conducted the arrest, trial and execution of Jang; and, in particular, the 1st Vice-Directors of the Organization and Guidance Department.  These are Cho Yon-jun, Min Byong-chol  and Kim Kyong-ok.  Most pundits are not familiar with these last three but they are the keepers of the keys to North Korea’s supreme leader – the primary interface between all 2nd and 3rd tier leadership and Kim Jong-un. Party cadre defector debriefings have produced strong testimony about the extreme influence these three have on all of North Korea.

Looking Ahead

The real question is whether the Kim Jong-un Regime is now more stable after the Jang episode – or is it more unstable?  A number of analysts have made cases for both and there is a case for both.

Kim Jong-un has eliminated a serious threat and thus taken a step closer to consolidating his power. When he considered the punishment for Jang, Kim no doubt was advised against sending Jang to a political prison camp from which he could potentially escape by bribing guards (all of whom had formerly been under his supervision), making his way to China, and, from there, causing considerable problems for the regime.  From this perspective, execution likely made the most sense to the regime senior advisors.  Therefore, it should be emphasized that Jang’s execution was not irrational, as some senior US leaders have suggested.

Furthermore, publicizing the event was, as one renowned China analyst put it, “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.”  In other words, this was a warning to all North Koreans that cheating the supreme leader carries the ultimate price tag.  And therein lies the crucial point from the regime perspective: this was a threatening episode of disloyalty that intimidated Kim Jong-un and his supporters to the point that they had to take drastic action.  Not only did they permanently remove what was beginning to be a political rival in Uncle Jang, but they found it necessary to destroy what was, until that time, a critical part of their internal security. Realistically, this temporary consolidation by Kim Jong-un has come at cost, that is, the temporary debilitation of political oversight of his internal security network through the gutting and probable end to the Administrative Department.

So who becomes the new Number Two?  There are several candidates and where they stand depends on where they sit.  Now that Jang is gone, Vice-Marshal Choi Ryong-hae’s influence cannot help but to increase.  As the chief political commissar responsible for the ideological training and monitoring of the North Korean military and its military-industrial complex, Choi’s ability to shape supreme leadership decision-making as the Kim Regime’s potential number two man is as high as any other military man since O Jin-u served Kim Jong-il simultaneously as his General Political Bureau Director and Minister of People’s Armed Forces in the mid-1990’s.  Choi is North Korean royalty as his father, Choi Hyun, served alongside Kim Il-sung as an anti-Japanese partisan in the 1930’s and 40’s and then served as North Korea’s Defense Minister. A life-long party man, Choi was a friend of Kim Jong-il and served as the chairman of the Socialist Labor Youth League, a party organization designed to ideologically indoctrinate and mobilize North Korean youth.

Secondly, General Kim Won-hung, the Director (commander) of the extremely powerful SSD, directs the 50,000-man secret police charged with regime security. General Kim formerly served as the Commander of the Military Security Command and was the #3 man in the General Political Bureau prior to being promoted to the head of the SSD.  As the leader of North Korea’s version of the Nazi SS, General Kim is the most experienced counterintelligence leader in North Korea.

Thirdly, while there are a number of Organization and Guidance Department Directors, but only three 1st Vice-Directors, identified earlier, serve as the senior political advisors to Kim Jong-un. Cho Yon-jun is a 1st Vice-Director of the Organization and Guidance Department and basically serves as its Cadre Division Director as well as the “commandant of the KWP headquarters.” He is responsible for overseeing the background investigation of everyone in North Korea except the supreme leader and thus possesses the capability to demote, hire and transfer all high-ranking personnel except those about whom Kim Jong-un must approve.  Even then, Cho is presenting the case for or against such a person.  It is Cho who led the purge of Jang Song-thaek at the Politiburo meeting where Jang was arrested, as displayed across most international media outlets.  Cho also led the purge of former SSD lead-man, Ryu Kyong in 2012.

Min Byong-chol is also an Organization and Guidance Department 1st Vice-Director and serves as the organization’s Inspection Division Director, a very powerful position which conducts investigations of all discrepancies within the party that do not conform to supreme leader guidance and expectations.  Min is known within the party as the “angel of death” for his record of political inspections and purges.  Min was responsible for purging Chu Sang-song, former Minister of People’s Security in 2012.  We should assume that Min’s political inspection teams played a role during the inspection and investigation of Jang Song-thaek’s crimes because the OGD has primacy in the investigations of all party apparati.

General Kim Kyong-ok is not a military professional but a longtime political commissar-type with the General Political Bureau.  He oversees all of the reporting concerning the military and has a major influence on all of the military leaders’ personal lives. Military reports to Kim Jong-un are channeled through him, to Kim Jong-un’s personal chief of staff, Kim Chang-son, to the supreme leader himself.

The determination of the next number two in North Korea will be largely  a combination of Kim Jong-un’s personal proclivities and the current power structure.   However, Jang’s execution once again confirms that being the second most influential man in North Korea’s Kim regime has always been a particularly challenging position, fraught with ever-increasing demands of loyalty, suspicion of true intent and, in particular, danger.  Thus sustainability of North Korea’s unofficial number two position is suspect at best – regardless of who ends up in the position. The Kim Jong-un regime will continue to blame Jang for things going wrong in North Korea, regardless of whether Jang had anything to do with it.  The expansion of Jang as a scapegoat will assist the regime in covering their failures, particularly in the area of economics.  It will also temper the new number two’s confidence.  From the regime’s perspective, future threats to Kim Jong-un’s rule will be muted, thus contributing to temporary stability.

However, beyond that, the now questionable reliability of the internal security agencies and the courts at the lower levels feeds the instability calculus to a significant degree.  Kim Jong-un will inevitably have to purge more threats as corruption grows and other attempts to divert assets away from the regime begin to demand political influence as well.


* The Special Zone Development Bureau is responsible for the Nason Special Economic Zone and would have been responsible for the joint China-North Korea zone at Hwankeumpyong at the mouth of the Yalu River, as well as other similar development zones.


Robert M. Collins is a 37-year veteran employee of the U.S. Department of the Army and served 31 years in various positions with the U.S. military in Korea, including several liaison positions with the Republic of Korea military. Collins is a freelance writer focusing on Korean security issues and US interests in Northeast Asia. He is the author of Marked For Life: Songbun – North Korea’s Social Classification System, published by the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, Washington, DC.


Photo credit: Zennie Abraham