[This essay was originally published at The Diplomat on April 17, 2013.]
The man at the helm in North Korea today is an accident of history, surrounded by vestigial assertions of narcissistic genius that are de rigueur for North Korea’s depiction of its own leaders. More than any time since the young Kim Il-song was surrounded by Soviet generals in the 1940s, the North Korean leader today is dependent upon advisors.
Advisors and officials below the rungs of the Kim family may not play an overt role in North Korea, but they are vital. And they need to be known, not least because they can be blamed, and possibly executed, when problems arise. The North Korean state marshaled the power of the North Korean rumor mill when it indicates that discord among advisors can be exploited by North Korea’s adversaries, when in fact it cannot.
In terms of how he handles his own advisors, Kim Jong-un shows every indication that he is operating from manuals set down by his grandfather and father. Kim Jong-un is frequently likened to the young Kim Il-song, North Korea’s guerilla fighter, Sovietized soldier, and state founder.
Kim Il-song’s early experiences are particularly salient for his grandson: The elder Kim had been surrounded by older, more experienced advisors, most of whomhappened to be Soviet Generals. (Kim Il-song also lacked strong fluency in the Korean language and a domestic powerbase, thanks to having spent long years abroad.) After the Korean War, Kim Il-song had been restless in purging his rivals from inside the Party. He was uncommonly successful. After 1956, there was no longer such thing as an internal opposition in North Korea. Assertions today of a possible internal resistance movement or factional opposition to Kim Jong-un akin to the Stauffenberg conspiracy in 1944 Germany or South Korea in the 1961 are simply off-base; such a movement would be not simply rootless, but completely ahistorical.
Kim Jong-un’s advisors today are the descendants of the victorious elements in those purges. He is enabled by a web of advisors with a clear influence on the policy formation and implementation in Pyongyang.
Who are these advisors? How do they inflect the North Korean approach to governance, statecraft, culture, and diplomacy, which are all interwoven in the DPRK?
Jang Song-taek, Kim Kyong-hui, and the Family | There is no shortage of rumors in South Korea about the duo of Jang and Kim who are near to Kim Jong-un. Among the more interesting rumors was that Jang opposed recent nuclear tests and was being purged (he emerged at Kim Jong-un’s side about two days later), that Kim Kyong-hui is an alcoholic and “seriously ill,”that Jang Song-taek is a reformer, etc. etc.
However, iconography is everything in North Korea. This is how power is projected and pictured in the theater-state that is the DPRK. Taking a “hard-facts” approach is particularly needed when approaching what we know about the working of the North Korean state. The individuals discussed here are assumed to be close to Kim Jong-un and influential in the policy process because they are depicted as such in verifiable state media or histories or memoir literature, not because of rumors transmitted from the South Korean press or from analysts who purport to have “inside information” from Pyongyang.
Jang Song-taek is a particularly interesting case, not least because he acted rather like a head of state. On his visit to China in August 2012 it seemed abundantly clear that Jang Song-taek enjoyed the limelight, basking in the glow of the Chinese and world media, and giving few obsequious flourishes to his nominal boss. (Kim Jong-il, recall, never had a full “state visit” to the PRC due to his own peculiarities, and the Chinese were dying to have the appearance of a solid state-to-state relationship, which Jang gave them.)
Jang was pictured next to Kim Jong-un at the crucial moment of the December 13 rocket test and has been in close proximity to Kim Jong-un since he followed behind him at Kim Jong-il’s magisterial funeral procession. However, Jang has seemed willing to be in background when the occasion has warranted, such as the more recent meeting of Kim Jong-un with his Strategic Rocket Forces command. The possible growth of a mini-personality cult for Jang seems to have gone nowhere; he lacks the necessary blood connection to the Kim family and the construction of legitimacy in the DPRK, as the state media continues to iterate, goes through Mount Paektu, synonymous with the Kim family. Given the choice, the North Korean people might rather have Jang as the most influential advisor rather than the often-parasitic military, although he technically holds the rank of General himself and is occasionally seen in uniform.
Jang was also present in November 2012, when Kim Jong-un appeared on horseback with several of his family members and close aides. While one analyst said the event was primarily about Kim Jong-un’s “building legacy, burnishing image and making sure future sculptors get the statue right,” the appearance of his cohort was also significant. Like the appearance of a long documentary in January 2012 revealing details about Kim Jong-un’s life, the equestrian episode was a key moment in the DPRK’s visualized politics. Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of Kim Jong-il and thus the aunt to the current leader, appeared at this gathering (as did Kim Jong-un wrap-around sunglasses). Kim Kyong-hui is married to Jang Song-taek, although the two never show anything resembling public affection. .
Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, was also seen in full vigor on horseback. While the younger sister is recently described by a family intimate as “a shrew-like woman [and] a free-spirited tomboy” unable to handle a specific bureaucracy, her appearance in November was a public indication that the sister remains close to the ruling circle. As no public discussion is allowed in North Korea as regards a contingency plan if Kim Jong-un happens to die, the sister’s presence is at least a nod at keeping a generation of Kims in power, indicating that while the state is still congratulating itself for “solving the problem of inheriting the leadership,” rule might be transferred laterally rather than devolved down to Kim Jong-un’s infant.
Kim Ki-nam and the Old Guard | Family ties extend not just down, but up in terms of age and ability. Kim Ki-nam is a significant individual who is less often discussed than Jang Song-taek , but who is no less important to the successful implementation of the North Korean agenda. Kim Ki-Nam is in his 80s, and has been at the heart of Pyongyang politics since at least 1953. He was Secretary of the KWP’s Central Committee during the dark famine days of the late 1990s, and was a steadily conservative voice then for developing the economy along military lines.
Today his portfolio encompasses propaganda and agitation, activities which receive a massive budget line used not just for concerts, but Rushmore-esque mountain inscriptions and statues to the immortality of Kim Jong-il. Presumably he carries out this agenda to model societal loyalty to the Kim family and reinforce that North Korea cannot be led by anyone other than Kim Il-song’s progeny. The fact that Kim Ki-nam played an important role in the decades-long struggle for Kim Jong-il’s own succession has made him a valuable aide. His placement, just behind Kim Jong-un and the young leader’s uncle at Kim Jong-il’s funeral cortege, was an indicator of his importance.
Of the core Party elders, few have played a more prevalent role publicly since Kim Jong-il’s death than Kim Ki-nam. Jang Song-taek may be seen fairly frequently, but he does not speak. Kim Ki-nam is both seen and heard, usually pronouncing on the legacy of Kim Jong-il or the artistic direction of the new DPRK. Kim Jong-un may be the face of the future, but the direction of the propaganda and the young successor’s place in it is also very much coming from men like Kim Ki-nam with strong living experience in navigating North Korean state propaganda through immense external cultural shifts. If Kim Jong-un has a speechwriter, it is probably Kim Ki-nam or people working under his auspices.
Jon Yong-nam: Keeping the Youth in Line | An interesting younger antipode to Kim Ki-nam who is interested in the same thing — ideological continuation — is Jon Yong-nam, the head of the Kim Il-Song Socialist Youth League for about the past year and a key voice in keeping students at all levels quiescent at worse and heavily politicized at best. In the discussion of the next generation, we can see Jon’s value. He is given huge stadiums full of red-kerchiefed children to lecture, and is maintaining a steadfast line. Like the Chinese leader Hu Jintao, we can expect Jon Yong-nam to use the Youth League base as a means of rising higher in Pyongyang’s politics.
In debates over North Korean cultural parameters represented by the semi-edgy Moranbong Band, Jon would certainly have a seat at the table over the overall cultural approach to North Korean youth, a key demographic and allegedly a cornerstone of pro-Kim Jong-un sentiment. It is unclear if Kim Jong-un’s wife, the much-watched Ri Sol-ju, takes an active role in debates over public taste in music, but her appearance at Kim’s first inspection of the Moranbong’s “demonstration concert” would indicate that she may have some degree of influence in that field.
Finally, Jon Yong-nam’s proximity to Kim Jong-un can be seen in the fact that his predecessor was sacked by the new leader just months after having met Chinese Vice-Premier and heir apparent Xi Jinping in Beijing. Kim Jong-un thus cut off one more appendage of possible Chinese contagion while elevating a trusted subordinate. Jon has been rather busy this spring, and is one of the most frequently-quoted North Korean leaders apart from Kim Jong-un himself.
Conclusion | In June 2012, Kim Jong-un shocked the world by purging the man who had been pictured as his mentor on the platform of power in North Korea: General Ri Yong-ho. Like the proverbial dog who is boiled after his master has bagged the hare, the General had outlived his usefulness. For a man who had been posed as second-in-command (and thus one step up from Kim Jong-un) when Kim Jong-il was still alive and greeting powerful foreign friends, it was a staggering fall. There is next to no reliable information on where Ri is presently, but the message was rather clear: Kim Jong-un is in charge, and he controls the barrel of North Korea’s proverbial gun.
Kim Jong-un may have come to power in the absence of strong overt rivals, but, when it comes to taking his own path apart from senior influence, time is on his side. A brief glance at a recent Supreme People’s Assembly podium presents a startling contrast in terms of age: The civilian side was stocked with cabinet members born in the 1930s and 40s, while the military side was decidedly younger. We will see if Kim Jong-un is content to let most of his elder advisors live out their remaining influential years in Pyongyang’s opulent and complex center without purging them first.
Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in Asian history at Queen’s University, Belfast, and editor of the website SinoNK.com.