On January 11, the Unification Ministry in South Korea announced major changes in North Korea’s power structure for 2018. The ministry publishes a list of North Korea’s power elite every year. According to the new report, some of those in charge of key agencies in North Korea seem to have been replaced. The personnel reshuffle in key posts merits attention, as it implies a potential change within North Korea and the nation’s future moves. Here is Oh Gyeong-seob, research fellow at the North Korean Studies Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Well-known names such as Kim Jong-un, Kim Yong-nam, Choe Ryong-hae and Pak Pong-ju are included in the standing committee of the Workers’ Party’s political bureau. Hwang Pyong-so is still on the list as well. The committee members are North Korea’s power elite since they decide on important matters. Looking at the power structure, those who play an important role in different departments in the Workers’ Party have been selected or promoted since Kim Jong-un came to power. Therefore, they will likely follow the leader’s existing policies in the future. Without a doubt, North Korea will set its main goal at nuclear armament, which is the nation’s top priority, while focusing on monitoring and controlling key officials and citizens to suppress their political resistance.
In the most attention-grabbing change in power shifts in North Korea’s elite, Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of the party’s central committee, seems to be leading the party’s organization and guidance department. The director of this department is in charge of overseeing the party’s personnel policy. Former leader Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader, took this post in 1973 and kept it until he died in 2011. Now, Choe holds several key posts, including the chief of the organization and guidance department and he is also a member of the standing committee of the party’s politburo, to consolidate his position as the nation’s second-in-command, both in name and reality.
The organization and guidance department is defined as a party within the party and above the party. There are about 3 million party members in North Korea, with one party cell consisting of five to 30 members. About 210-thousand party cells are scattered across the nation, and it is the organization and guidance department that manages all those cells. That means this very powerful department controls the entire country systematically. It wields overwhelmingly dominant power right under top leader Kim Jong-un.
A generational shift in North Korea’s power structure also deserves attention. For example, Pak Kwang-ho, who appeared for the first time under the Kim Jong-un regime, is regarded as a new influential figure as he is a member of the party’s politburo and the vice chairman of the party’s central committee. It appears that he has also become the chief of the propaganda and agitation department.
Pak Kwang-ho’s quick and unusual emergence as a key party official draws attention. It is assumed that he assisted Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong as a close aide to her while she was working as the vice director of the propaganda and agitation department, and this led to his exceptional promotion. Pak has often given enthusiastic speeches on the VIP stage at massive public events to praise the leader’s achievement of establishing the country as a nuclear power. On October 8, 2017, for instance, he served as the host of an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of former leader Kim Jong-il’s election as general secretary of the Workers’ Party. He is presumed to have been promoted to the role of vice director of the party’s administrative bureau and chief of the propaganda and agitation department at that time. Now he plays a key role in bolstering the personality cult of leader Kim Jong-un and encouraging the public and the elite alike to support the regime through various propaganda activities. In brief, he is one of the party’s heavyweights.
Also, Jong Kyong-thaek replaced Kim Won-hong as the minister of state security, while Shin Ryong-man became the head of Office 39. As the party’s special unit in charge of managing Kim Jong-un’s secret funds, Office 39 has been led by one of the most reliable experts trusted by the leader.
Office 39 was set up in the mid-1970s. As an organization that oversees the nation’s foreign currency earnings, it has raised and managed Kim Jong-un’s secret funds. As a means of earning foreign money these days, it has guided various illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, financial fraud, counterfeiting, manufacturing of fake tobacco products and hacking. Office 38, which takes charge of procuring the leader’s governing money from within the nation, has reportedly been integrated into Office 39. Until recently, Office 39 had been led by Jon Il-chun. As he has been blacklisted as part of international sanctions on the North, Jon has been replaced by vice director of the office Shin Ryong-man, who has the full confidence of the leader.
North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland seems to belong to the Cabinet now. As the North Korean counterpart of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, the committee led the North Korean delegation that participated in high-level inter-Korean talks on January 9. According to the Unification Ministry, North Korea’s Cabinet, including the Foreign Ministry, uses the word “Republic” when referring to its agencies. The ministry explains that North Korea has used the same term when mentioning the committee in its recent reports, so it seems to be placed under the Cabinet now, although North Korea has not officially announced the change.
In June 2013, an inter-Korean meeting was cancelled due to the disagreement over who would lead the South and North Korean delegations to the talks. At the time, North Korea planned to send Kang Ji-yong, chief of the secretariat for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, as the head of its delegation. But North Korea took issue with the head of the South Korean delegation, Kim Nam-sik, who was Vice Unification Minister. The North said that Kim was not at the same level as the chief of its delegation, who it claimed was a minister-level official, and demanded that a minister of South Korea lead the delegation instead. But South Korea said that the chief of the secretariat for the committee cannot be viewed as the equivalent to South Korea’s Unification Minister. To prevent such mishaps from reoccurring, North Korea seems to have upgraded the committee from a subsidiary of the party to an agency under the State Affairs Commission, so the committee will act as a counterpart of South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
Meanwhile, inter-Korean talks are underway to discuss North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will be held in South Korea next month. The two sides are expected to hold military talks as early as the end of this month. The last inter-Korean military talks took place in October 2014, when Kim Yong-chol, then-director of the general bureau of reconnaissance of the Korean People’s Army, was the chief of the North Korean delegation. Attention turns to who would lead the North Korean delegation at the planned military talks.
At present, it is unclear exactly who the directors of the Korean People’s Army’s general bureau of reconnaissance and general political bureau are. The role of the director of the general political bureau has been vacant since Hwang Pyong-so was dismissed from the post. Kim Yong-chol was the director of the general bureau of reconnaissance. After he was assigned to the head of the United Front Department, it is uncertain whether he also still holds his previous post, or a new figure has been appointed to the position. So, it is hard to predict who will lead the North Korean delegation to the military talks. A lieutenant colonel or colonel-level official could lead the delegation, but at this point in time, it is hard to figure out who that official would be. The military talks are expected to focus on North Korea’s participation at the PyeongChang Winter Games, and the meeting will likely be held in the form of working-level talks led by a lieutenant colonel-or colonel-level official. Depending on the result of the talks, we’ll have to wait and see whether the talks could lead to further inter-Korean military discussions after the Olympics.
As Seoul and Pyongyang continue to hold talks to discuss issues related to North Korea’s participation at the Olympics, the power structure in the North Korean military will likely draw more attention. It remains to be seen how the new North Korean power elite will steer the nation.
[Interview] Young Defector Dreams of Becoming Actress in S. Korea
This is part of a musical titled “Sweet Royal Azalea” that was performed last November. In this musical describing the lives of young defectors from North Korea, North Korean defector Kang Na-ra played the lead female role, Euna. The show was over, but Kang reads the script from time to time to recall the moment.
The musical still lingers in my mind, and even now, I keep fiddling around with the script. I’m afraid of parting with people, as I had to leave some of my family members in North Korea. I mingled with new friends for a month but I parted with them when the show was over. I guess that’s why the musical has more emotional resonance. I pick up the script and browse it again at home because I’m still attached to it.
Currently, Kang studies acting and does some broadcasting work as well. Her hometown is Chongjin, North Hamgyeong Province in North Korea. She came to South Korea in 2014 when she was 18 years old. It is said that the teenager got information about South Korea through TV dramas.
In North Korea, I listened to many South Korean songs and saw South Korean soap operas. Among others, I liked “Boys over Flowers” very much. I was a teenager at the time. In the drama, young, pretty girls appear, wearing nice clothes. I would wear my skirt in the same way as the girls did in the drama.
For Kang, however, the reality in South Korea was a lot different from the scenes in the drama. Thanks to her mother who resettled before her, she could lead a relatively stable life. Still, she found an unfamiliar environment very inconvenient at first, as she had to learn everything South Korean people were simply used to. Fortunately, Kang was able to adjust to her new environment quickly. She absorbed new information, like a sponge. Now, she doesn’t feel unfamiliar with South Korean society at all. So, what was the best part for her in her South Korean life?
Unlike a socialist state, a capitalistic society allows people to get paid according to how much they work. I was young, but I was able to get a part-time job if I needed money. In North Korea, people can’t buy two kilograms of rice, even with their entire monthly pay. But they can’t find any part-time work. Here in South Korea, I was glad to work part-time to make money.
Kang graduated from an arts high school and attended an art college before escaping from North Korea. She was greatly interested in art, and the talented girl dreamed of becoming a singer.
In North Korea, my dream was to become a singer and to join the so-called “Pleasure Squad.” I studied vocal music in North Korea, but it was challenging to be a singer in South Korea because of different singing styles. North Koreans who want to be singers in the South mostly sing trot songs. But I thought I was too young to sing this style of music. Moreover, there were already too many great trot singers. I didn’t think I could compete with them on stage.
Kang began to wonder what would best showcase her talent. It didn’t last long before she found an answer. She chose to act on stage, instead of singing. In 2017, she entered the Department of Performance at Seoul Institute of the Arts.
While attending the class with my 150 classmates, I wondered if I could ever survive. At first, it was very difficult for me to catch up with the studies, as I couldn’t understand lots of terms. Around the time when the first semester ended, things got better. In the second semester, I found the subject interesting. Most of all, I tried to correct my pronunciation and intonation. But I also tried to remember the North Korean accent, as I thought I might use it later. I corrected my pronunciation while watching dramas and imitating the shapes of entertainers’ mouths.
While practicing reading, Kang also auditioned for movies in her spare time. She failed in the auditions many times, but she never gave up. She tried even harder, and she managed to appear in two movies, although she played minor roles.
In many auditions, I had to go through three rounds of screenings. Of course, I was disappointed when I failed to pass them. But I was able to act in two movies somehow. The first movie is titled “Paper Plane,” and it is about teenagers hoping to enter the entertainment industry. I performed the role of a student from Pyongyang, who prepares to join a girl band. In another film “Swing Kids”, which is set against the background of the Korean War, I acted as a North Korean female soldier. I was supposed to utter only three or four words. But it was so difficult to memorize the simple words. I wondered if I was particularly slow at learning lines and how leading actors and actresses could memorize all the lines. I was so nervous that I had to memorize my lines all day long, although I received the script in the morning. Fortunately, I managed to finish shooting. After the work was done, I felt refreshed. It was a difficult experience, but I was happy.
Kang slowly became an actress, learning how to act little by little. What does unification mean to this 20-something lady, who is filled with hopes and dreams? The young woman talks about what she wants to do first when Korea is unified.
After unification, I want to sing with my friends on stage, like at the KBS Nationwide Singing Contest. My initial dream was to become a singer. I have friends who appear on North Korean TV. With those friends, I hope to sing again, reminiscing about my childhood.
It makes us smile just imagining that Kang is singing cheerfully with her friends on a North Korean TV program. Here’s hoping that her wish will come true as early as possible.