The Unification Ministry in South Korea says that Kim Won-hong, head of North Korea’s Ministry of State Security was fired in mid-January, with his military rank demoted to major general from full general following an investigation by the ruling Workers’ Party. A number of ministry officials are assumed to have been executed in the process of the probe. The purge of the security ministry chief is considered to be a major incident in the history of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s so-called reign of terror. Attention turns to the future power structure in the communist regime. Here’s Professor Kim Yong-hyun from the North Korean Studies Department at Dongguk University to explain.
It’s definitely worth noting the demotion and dismissal of one of the most important figures within the North Korean leadership. It means that Kim Jong-un’s key aide in charge of the nation’s intelligence has been ousted from power. Some speculate that there are signs of political cracks in the Kim Jong-un regime, while others are saying the regime is eliminating old figures in the course of selecting new officials.
Kim Won-hong, who became the head of the security body in 2012, was one of the influential figures trusted by the leader. He was so powerful that he was said to be capable of anything. He is also known to have led the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 in cooperation with the Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party.
While Choe Ryong-hae is Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man, Kim Won-hong was considered another close aide of the leader. Although his name was relatively unknown, he was indeed an influential figure who played important roles in many areas. He was the head of the Ministry of State Security, which is equivalent to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. That means he had access to important information or data about North Korea’s major officials. The Ministry of State Security is considered the second most powerful agency in North Korea, after the Worker’s Party.
In a word, this official had wielded absolute power as the head of North Korea’s spy agency since 2012. There is growing public discontent within North Korea amid economic difficulties and the leader’s repressive rule. It appears that the recent sacking of the intelligence agency chief is aimed at easing the public’s complaints and promoting Kim Jong-un’s image as a leader who cares about his people by shifting the responsibility to the official. But, there are various interpretations of the fall of the former security minister, who spearheaded political purges in the early years of leader Kim Jong-un’s rule.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul says that Kim was dismissed, apparently on charges of human rights violations, abuse of power and corruption. In reality, however, we have to observe the situation from a different angle. With the Kim Jong-un regime entering the sixth year in its rule, it may find it necessary to fill the intelligence agency with new figures to further consolidate the leader’s rule. If old officials like Kim Won-hong continue to lead the security ministry, it may pose a political burden for the North’s leader.
Some analysts are saying that the latest change in the North Korean official’s status indicates that there are signs of rupture in the once-strong forces in charge of public security, while others speculate that the nation is in the final stage of removing the supporters of Kim Kyung-hui, who is Kim Jong Un’s aunt. Some predict that the North Korean regime may become more unstable after the dismissal of Kim Won-hong, due to increased agitation from the elite and weakened control over ordinary North Koreans.
The power elite in North Korea may feel that the leader regards even his closest aides as disposable whenever necessary, no matter how loyal they remain. Both the elite and the public may feel anxious about the leader’s high-handed policy aimed at strengthening his rule. To North Korean people, the recent sacking of the high official may seem that absolute loyalty to the leader is not created voluntarily from below but is forced from above. While observing the process of firing high-ranking officials, the citizens might show their surprise and disappointment.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has solidified his power base through his reign of terror since he came to power in late 2011. There have been brutal purges involving party, government and military officials, regardless of their status. Even influential officials could not avoid the indiscriminative purges. Following the recent dismissal of the security minister, the leader is expected to strengthen his power even further.
If Kim Jong-un manages to fill the power elite with his trusted people, there would be fewer purges. But considering its relations with the U.S. and with the international community as well as the nuclear issue, North Korea may find it crucial to control people strictly and tighten internal unity for now. In the process, the reign of terror may continue for the time being, with purges occurring from time to time. The Kim Jong-un regime has used the reign of terror tactic to build the power base in a short period of time, and this type of rule will likely last for some time. North Korea may also be tempted to use this tactic to achieve internal solidarity.
Since the Kim Jong-un regime took power, the forces in charge of public security and control have led North Korean society. Now experts are wondering how long this situation will continue and who will be subject to next purges.
[Interview] Defector Dreams of Inter-Korean Communication through Video
Director Han Jeong-seon deals with planning, filming and editing all alone. The North Korean defector has established her own domain in the video filming area, which requires both specialized skills and artistry. As a matter of fact, she never really expected to work in this field.
I never dreamt of becoming a video producer in North Korea, where the job was too challenging for ordinary people to pursue. But here in South Korea, anyone can do the work as long as he or she puts the effort in and loves it. Actually, it’s a difficult job, unless one likes it. You have to stay up all night and run around the mountains carrying a camera. So you have to be enthusiastic.
Han is in her early 40s, and she arrived in South Korea with her child 14 years ago. For her, it was urgent to become economically self-sufficient. She needed to learn some skills to get a job. What attracted her attention was the computer, which she saw for the first time in her life.
I was very curious about the computer. I first saw the computer at the rehabilitation center of Hanawon. There, I also practiced typing for the first time. I wondered about computer programs such as Hangeul and Excel. I worked for a few months to earn some money before attending a private learning institute. Starting with personal computer maintenance, I concentrated on learning computer-related skills.
Thanks to her computer skills, she was able to find a relatively stable job. One day, a video team visited her company to make a promotional video. Han was fascinated by the filming work, which she had never seen before. She had various questions to ask the director, who happened to be a North Korean defector, too. That’s how she became involved in video filming.
At first, I only worked part-time. I found myself enjoying the filming work very much. I really worked hard and learned about video filming little by little. At the time, I slept only three hours a day. During the day, I met people, listened to them talk, watched the producers shooting and editing, and helped them with their work. After returning home around 11 p.m., I searched for relevant websites and checked questions and answers related to filming. I studied for two to three hours before I went to bed around 3 or 4 in the morning.
Meanwhile, an exciting opportunity came. The Korea Hana Foundation asked her to make a film featuring North Korean newcomers who successfully resettled in South Korea. Han felt some hesitation in accepting the offer because she thought her skills and senses might not be as good as those who received systematic education in South Korea. But she decided to take the bull by the horns. Based on her own experience, she focused on how the newcomers were able to overcome the difficulties in an unfamiliar environment. Through her film, she was able to share her story and that of other defectors.
My film was shown to the trainees at Hanawon, where newly-arrived defectors receive rehabilitation training for a certain period of time. In the film, I introduced North Korean defectors engaging in various jobs, including a strawberry farmer, a honey farmer, a furniture maker and those working at elevator or air conditioner manufacturers. The trainees at Hanawon showed great interest in the jobs they saw in the film and asked countless questions. I was happy at the thought of giving them some help in finding their aptitude or choosing their future career. I believe this is the power of video content.
The work she liked to do proved helpful for her fellow North Korean expatriates. That’s why she is proud of her job and finds it rewarding. In the meantime, she received some delightful news.
My film about the employment of North Korean defectors won a prize at the Evergreen Film Festival. In North Korea, it is very difficult to enjoy such a benefit, however hard one tries. But here, I realized that people can be rewarded if they set a certain goal and work toward that goal, no matter who they are. I think South Korea is a fair country where one’s efforts are rewarded. At first, it just didn’t feel real that I received an award. But I soon came to believe that I would be able to achieve even more—something even bigger.
Through her film, Han wants to introduce her home country to the South Korean public and also to deliver what she has experienced in South Korea to people in the North. In doing so, she sincerely hopes that South and North Korea can better understand and communicate with each other. She says she wishes to produce a particular film after Korea is unified.
In North Korea, there are numerous places that still remain untouched by people. There, the air is fresh and the scenery is wonderful. I wish to introduce those beautiful places in my film. There are scenic mountains like Mt. Geumgang and Mt. Myohyang. But only a few people, like those who have proved their loyalty to the leader or local residents, have been there. I haven’t visited Mt. Baekdu yet. After unification, I can film the spectacular scenes of the famous mountains with my own camera. As I’m getting older, I hope that unification will come about soon. I wish to contain the beautiful and clean nature of North Korea in my video.
We’re looking forward to the day when the people all around the world will enjoy the beautiful landscape of North Korea filmed by director Han.