By Giancarlo Elia Valori*
How is North Korea’s political system currently changing, pending the Great Transformation with the USA and South Korea, wanted and carefully directed by Kim Jong-un?
In the future the Great Leader wants to have a new ruling class suitable for the economic and strategic changes which will affect North Korea in the coming years.
Far-reaching military and economic changes, with the support of Iran, the Russian Federation, China and other countries.
According to Kim Jong-un, without prejudice to the regime’s structure, everything else must change.
In the framework of this change, the State and the Party must be turned into quick and agile tools in the hands of the Leader and of his partly-renewed inner circle.
Kim Jong-un’s primary goal is to control the initial phase of North Korea’s economic transformation, as well as to keep the grip on the Armed Forces and the Party, and to finally create a new ruling class for managing denuclearization and the economic transformation.
In the case of North Korean Armed Forces, the new appointments have mainly concerned the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, the Chief of Staff Department of People’s Armed Forces – with new appointments also in the Directorate of Operations – and, finally, the Director of the General Political Bureau of the Armed Forces.
In the specific hierarchy of the North Korean military system, these are the three most important posts.
Furthermore, each of the three above mentioned roles implies the alternating or fixed presence of the Workers’ Party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the Political Bureau.
Therefore the new appointments are No Kwang Chol, former first vice-Minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replacing Pak Yong Sik, while Ri Yong-gil replaces his former boss, Ri Myong-su.
Ri Yong-gil was Commander of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, but he was later removed from office in February 2016.
As early as 2013 he had been Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and, despite the recent events, he had a stable and secure military career.
From 2014 to 2018 Ri Yong-gil was also Head of the Pyongyang Committee of the Workers’ Party.
From 2012 to 2013 he accompanied Kim Jong-un on many visits to nuclear and bacteriological-chemical sites.
Considering the symbolic relevance of the North Korean power, he is probably one of the true leaders of the nuclear and bacteriological-chemical program of the North Korean Armed Forces.
Ri Yong-gil was at first Party’s official and later became officer of the North Korean Armed Forces, while always keeping political and party positions rather than technically military ones.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un is still playing many of his cards on the Defence Ministry.
It is a source of foreign currency and of excellent profit in relation to the friendly powers, as well as of social control and of real and effective foreign policy.
Under the current leader, Kim Jong-un, six new Defence Ministers have been appointed.
Pak Yong-sik is one of the Ministers removed from office.
Probably he had some business roles, but we cannot rule out that in the future he can start again his career, interrupted on the basis of unpleasant news about his role as businessman in the phase of the Sunshine Policy with South Korea.
He had been member of the Council of State, of the Central Committee and of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea, as well as of the Central Military Commission and finally of the Political Committee of the Pyongyang Defence Command.
Clearly Kim Jong-un is measuring his potential enemy lobby.
And he is certainly planning the generational and political change of all the important positions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
As we will see later on, the new Minister No Kwang Chol was Head of the Second Economic Committee, which is in charge of the defence industry and hence connected with North Korea’s supervision and construction of conventional and nuclear weapons.
He is an excellent manager loyal to Kim Jong-un.
He held various posts in the North Korean political system.
These newly-appointed people have certainly been selected due to their absolute loyalty to Kim Jong-un and the Party,but we must better analyse the decision-making process of the North Korean Armed Forces, as well as their specific role.
The naive analysts who think that Kim Jong-un is “prisoner” of his ruling class have understood nothing of North Korea’s political and economic mechanism.
For the Leader, both loyalty and professional skills are needed. He is willing to get over some affectation or groveling too much, but Kim Jong-un wants the best of his technocracy, subject to loyalty to the Party and to himself.
And, above all, subject to the absolute non-involvement in any financial and commercial activity having even the slightest hint of irregularity.
Corrupt people are always at the mercy of the enemy’s blackmail.
The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, however, is currently placed under the dual and symmetrical control of the State Affairs Commission of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Nevertheless the Ministry deals mainly with the logistics and training of the Special Forces and operates with approximately 36 external organizations.
The Ministry acquires the orders, requests and notes from the basic military units and later organizes and distributes them between the Central Military Commission, the General Staff and the Party’s Ammunition Department.
The Ministry also deals with military finance and operates with commercial companies and production units which can export goods and hence supply the country with hard currency.
In fact, as already noted, at least 36 commercial companies operate in the field of export and internal distribution.
But someone talks about 50 of these companies.
The naive Western analysts were wrong in believing that the People’s Armed Forces were a “terrible cost” for the people and a huge obstacle to economic development.
The opposite was, and is, true.
Therefore the military system operates, above all, with the 44thBureau of the People’s Armed Forces, in controlling most of North Korea’s hard currency flows.
The Technology Transfer Department has also relations with both the companies owned by the Party and by the Ministry’s Ammunition Department.
In particular, it deals with the acquisition of information technology and advanced weapon systems.
The General Department of Logistics deals above all with the network of factories and farms supplying food and clothing to the People’s Armed Forces.
Sometimes they operate for the civilian and foreign market of food and clothing.
The Ministry, however, is subject to the control of the State Affairs Commission, which originates both from the Government and the Party, as well as from the Central Military Commission, which anyway results from the Party-government link only.
It is worth recalling that as early as 2000, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces directly controlled the Political Department, the General Staff, the Military Security Command, the Reconnaissance Bureau and the Coast Guard Command.
Later, around 2007, all these structures became an integral part of the Ministry itself, which was placed under the control of the National Defence Commission.
In 2016 the latter saw its powers restricted and was placed under the State Affairs Commission’s control.
It should also be noted that, unlike Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has revolutionised the People’s Armed Forces more than any other predecessor.
For example, there was the handover in February 2009 – just before Kim Jong-un’s role as heir to Kim Jong-il was officially declared.
As you may recall, this happened in September 2010.
At that stage, only seven of the most important positions in the North Korean military system were changed. It was the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s grip on power.
The North Korean Leader had carefully analysed all the military and economic positions well before his full rise to power.
From July to November of that year, the Political Committee (PC) of People’s Armed Forces was combed through by the North Korean leadership.
It was, in fact, the first scrutiny carried out by the Organization and Guidance Department after 1996.
There were some surprises: for example, the PC ships that secretly fished in Japanese waters; some military promotions in exchange for “bribes”; some accounting problems and some suspicions of corruption.
As is typical of his political role, Kim Jong-un has been very harsh in putting an end to these situations and punishing these behaviours.
In fact, in 2017 many executives of the Political Bureau of People’s Armed Forces were removed, with repercussions on the military forces that,as can be easily imagined, affected also the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Only after this long “purge” did Kim Jong-un focus on negotiations with South Korea and the USA.
In November 2017 Son Chol Ju, one of the officers promoted with the position of Colonel entrusted “with upper management and tasks”, was appointed as Head of the Organizational Affairs Department of People’s Armed Forces, but his appointment was made public only in May 2018.
As already noted, Son Chol Ju has replaced Jon Nam Jin and, most likely, also Kim Wong Hong.
Until that date Son Chol Ju had been the Director of the Political Bureau with the portfolio for organizational affairs, where he had spent his entire career.
Before taking this post, Son Chol Ju was political Director of the Air and Anti-Air Force, in addition to being Head of the respective political committee.
Probably Son Chol Ju was Head of the Political Bureau with the Propaganda portfolio, especially in the Pyongyang region.
In the meeting held on April 2018 Kim Jong Gak was elected to the Political Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
These changes of the North Korean ruling elite, however, show the extreme and non-negotiable power now reached by Kim Jong-un, unlike what claimed by the most naive, but very widespread, Western analyses.
This is one of the signs that, in a North Korean extremely important phase, the Party wants to control its “separate bodies”, with a view to avoiding “political advantages” and the systems of influence – even the foreign ones – as well as all the grey and black areas of finance which must currently be transformed and be directly controlled by the Party and its ruling class.
In this phase we need to study the careers of important personalities such as Jo Kyong Chol, the Director of the Military Security Command since 2009, as well as full member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and member of Kim Jong-il’s Funeral Committee.
Jo Kyong Chol was essential in strengthening Kim Jong-un’s power – a member of the “old guard” that wanted continuity, independence and military power for North Korea.
Hence he has accepted the new system of international relations in North Korea.
Currently Kim Jong-un certainly wants the regime’s continuity, but also and above all the emergence of a ruling class capable – by training, background and political culture – of organizing the North Korean stability in a phase of opening to the world market.
Ri Song Guk, another fer de lance of Kim Jong-un’s current political and military system, currently leads North Korea’s Fourth Army Corps – after leading the 39th Division – a very special military structure deployed near the Yellow Sea and the Northern Limit Line.
He is the current Director for Special Operations of the Central Command.
Yung Jong-rin is serving as the Commander of the Supreme Guard Command – therefore he is responsible for Kim Jong-un’s personal safety, but he had the same post with Kim Jong-il and is hence the Commander of the most technologically advanced security service in North Korea.
He has been member of the Central Military Commission since September 2010, as well as member of the Party’s Central Committee, and General since April 22, 2010.
Hence Kim Jong-un is preparing the ruling class that will defend North Korea’s interests in its new, gradual and slow globalization.
About the author:
*Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France.
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy.