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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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 whom happened 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.