More to Life than Kim Jong-un: Reflections on Robert Collins’ Report on the Organization and Guidance Department


Today the NK News website published a 1600-word essay I wrote in response to Robert Collins’ extensive new report on the Organization and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers’ Party. A short series of extracts follows:

More than ever since January 2017, ‘North Korea watchers’ have been wrestling with a dilemma typical for analysing autocracies: Does one take a personalist interpretation of the DPRK’s diplomacy and statecraft, honing in on the methods, statements, visions, and quirks of the dictator? […]

In his new report on the Oversight and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers’ Party, Robert Collins provides much grist for a more bureaucratic view of the DPRK, recognizing the importance of a web of individuals and structures in advancing North Korean governance and control. […] In the report, the dictatorship nevertheless holds things together and stands at the core. The OGD matters because it protects the leadership and polices the Party. As Collins stated at the report launch, “It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you are, you are ultimately controlled by the OGD, either directly or indirectly….[The OGD holds] a solid record of how you have performed with respect to your relationship to the Supreme Leader.” […]

The response of Markus Garlauskas to the Collins report was perhaps most consequential, since the National Intelligence Officer for North Korea on the National Intelligence Council hones in on precisely the value of the comparative analysis. Too often with the OGD there seems to be a fixation not so much on its malevolence or high level of control, but how uniquely malevolent or controlling it is. [Therefore] its kinship with the Chinese Communist Party’s Zuzhibu, Organization Department, is among the most valuable terrain covered by Collins. […]

Since Xi Jinping’s rise as chief executive, the Organization Department in Beijing has been to an extent paralleled and superceded by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (jilu jiancha weiyuanhui). In 2015, Willy Lam called the power of the Commission “unprecedented.” An assumption of North Korea as less sui generis might mean that we would able to ask to what extent Chinese changes in cadre inspection, regional appointments (for example the practice of not appointing cadre at the national level to serve in their local region), promotion (as discussed by Melanie Menon) or anti-corruption campaigns map onto adaptations or activities of the OGD. Stephan Blancke’s outstanding paper on cooperation between public security and espionage organs of China and the DPRK might give some direction for further analysis here, as does an ongoing spread in literature on Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns.

Part II of this essay, moving beyond the OGD, should be published in the next month.

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