The Koreas

What the Debate Over Who Rules North Korea Really Shows

Recent Features

The Koreas

What the Debate Over Who Rules North Korea Really Shows

The arguments over who really has power suggest an important new era in North Korean studies.

What the Debate Over Who Rules North Korea Really Shows
Credit: Roman Harak via

Who calls the shots in North Korea? While no one man can do everything, conventional analysis holds that the Supreme Leader, currently Kim Jong-un, is large and in charge. However, the orthodox position has been giving way to a new perspective. Recently, the argument has been put forward that the Supreme Leader is just a puppet, beholden to the power of a group of more powerful men. While questions concerning who is really in charge were seldom asked during Kim Jong-il’s reign, the discourse has changed since Kim Jong-un came to power in late 2011.

The question “Who governs?” is an important one, but overemphasizing this particular question runs the risk of overshadowing other important developments in the field of North Korean studies. Before listing a couple of the more important developments, let’s address the question burning a hole in everyone’s imagination, if only so that we may move slightly beyond it. In North Korea, who governs?

As chief editor of the news periodical New Focus, Jang Jin-sung has been promoting the need for analysts and experts to reappraise the structure of the North Korean regime. In his assessment, Kim Jong-un is merely a puppet, whereas real power resides in the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). The arrival of Hwang Pyong-so in Seoul for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, flanked by the type of security detail reserved only for the country’s most powerful (viz. the “Supreme Leader”), is one more piece of evidence (among others) that Jang has used to support his thesis.

According to North Korean expert Michael Madden, the OGD is essentially the human resources department of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), but one that also has a broad mandate to “implement the teachings and decisions of the [Great Leader].” Originally created in 1946, it was reorganized by Kim Jong-il in the 1980s with the addition of a military desk. It thereafter became the power base of his rule, and he filled it with personnel who were specifically loyal to him. The difference today, according to Jang, is that Kim Jong-un does not have the OGD under his thumb. Indeed, the opposite may be true; the loyalists remain true to the legacy of Kim Jong-il, not to his living son. In other words, though the OGD requires Kim Jong-un to sign off on decisions “because the symbolic aspect of Kim family power is crucial in sustaining the legitimacy of the North Korean state,” real power does not reside in the Supreme Leader himself.

It is on this point that a great debate churns. In times past, such public debates – in the English-language reading world, at least – would consist primarily of Western academics, North Korea specialists, and South Korean scholars with connections to English-language outlets. This is no longer the case. As the recent conference at Leiden University, “A State of Non-Legitimacy: North Korean Voices in Exile,” shows, sources of information and analysis of the North Korean regime have expanded to include North Koreans themselves.

While the Leiden conference is not a unique moment for North Korean defectors voices – the online newspaper Daily NK, run by both North and South Koreans, has been hosting debates featuring North Korean defectors for the last decade – it can been seen as a “Gangnam Style” moment: a watershed event for North Korean “voice.”

The conference featured seven relatively senior former elites who left the country but are now willing to reveal the “inner workings” of the regime. Jang Jin-sung, the most prominent and public among them, gave a public speech to conclude events, where he reaffirmed his Kim-as-puppet thesis. However important and captivating the OGD debate may be, there is a broader point to be made. And it is this point that takes us beyond the question of who governs in North Korea.

The point to be made concerns the source of the information and its perceived novelty. As discussed in a summary-cum opinion piece of the Leiden conference published at Sino-NK, much of what was discussed there is not unique. Former Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) International Secretary Hwang Jang-yop, who defected in 1997, also talked at length about the role of the OGD, and it is to be assumed that others, such as fellow Leiden attendee and former North Korean Foreign Ministry official Go Yeong-hwan, who defected in 1991, were aware of it upon their own arrivals in South Korea. Yet, Hwang’s impact, in particular, was strikingly more limited than Jang’s, especially abroad.

The cause of the muted impact boils down to three main issues: first, defector voices over the last few decades have consistently been ignored by mainstream politicians and policymakers; second, the information itself was not always delivered as coherently as it should have been; and three, timing. The three are, of course, interlinked. To wit: before the rise of respected news outlets like Daily NK in 2006-2007 and the fame of controversial defectors like Shin Dong-hyuk, North Korean defector voices were not as well known or sought after as they are today. Part of the problem was that the shocking information they carried did not successfully cross high linguistic barriers. Moreover, defectors were approached cautiously, if at all, and almost always on the presumption that they made for unreliable witnesses.

Additionally, we cannot ignore the plain truth that Hwang Jang-yop’s defection was badly timed from a South Korean perspective, coming just months before the new Kim Dae-jung administration launched a systematic attempt at rapprochement that would go on to last for a decade, and which public appearances by a senior defector like Hwang would have complicated. Indeed, one recent Chosun Premium piece claims that Kim Dae-jung offered to return Hwang Jang-yop to North Korea, but that Kim Jong-il refused to take back the “traitor.” This claim is almost certainly false, but the fact that it could be published in South Korea’s conservative media is ample reflection of the sort of critical re-examination of the Sunshine era now ongoing in South Korea.

In short, gone is the era of ignorance and neglect, and embedded is a new way of knowing. Although the blunt statement that defectors are simply being ignored does linger, and certainly their voices should be very much louder than they are, the reality is now more nuanced than in Hwang’s era. A number of the very best South Korean scholars of North Korea (writing in Korean) are empirically reliant on defector testimony. For instance, Sejong Institute researcher Jeong Seong-jang authored an insightful book in 2011, Contemporary North Korean Politics, which did not shy away from collating elite testimony and centrally acknowledged the power of the OGD, among other KWP departments. Similarly, Yang Mun-su of the University of North Korean Studies and Kim Byeong-yeon of Seoul National University based the material that went into their 2012 text, Markets and the State in North Korea, on in-depth interviews and statistical analysis from defector data and little else, as do most scholars interested in the country’s economy. In the English language, Professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul also deploys defector testimony widely in his work, which mostly focuses on ordinary lives lived in North Korea’s border region.

The wealth of information now escaping the vice-like grip of the Kim regime is a boon. Morally and ethically speaking it is important that voice has been given back to the North Korean people, and academically speaking it is crucial that they are being heard, for the simple reason that they can provide information that would not be accessible without them. If the standard set by the Leiden conference continues to be met then we can look forward to a plurality of defector and elite exile voices going forward.