Information—and Disinformation—on the North Korean Political Scene

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Luke Herman (University of California, San Diego)
December 18, 2012 7:00 AM

Prior to the missile launch, we saw a spate of reporting coming out of the South Korean press hinting that the transition may not be going well. These stories may provide information—or disinformation. And the successful launch may--or may not-- have changed the story line. In any case, the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death struck us as a reasonable time to review Kim Jong Un’s first year and identify what we do and don’t know about the succession process.

It seems clear that Kim Jong Un is seeking to build a new cadre of military, party and state personnel that are loyal to him. It also appears as if internal security has been heightened, with possible implications for the political standing of the security and prosecutorial apparatus. Yet it is also a certainty that those at the losing end of the changes—and they are numerous—are probably not very happy about it. The issue is not simply one of formal positions being lost but the associated rents that went with them. The key question is whether the disaffected have ways to effectively challenge the regime; to date, the answer to that question still seems to be “no.” Redundant, stove-piped commands make it hard for the disaffected to coordinate.

Recent Speculation: Is the Succession Under Stress?

Dong-A Ilbo was the first to report on possible stresses, with a story on December 4th titled “Is NK leader staying in P’yang in fear of his personal safety?” The article drew attention to the fact that Kim Jong Un has not made a public inspection tour outside of Pyongyang since August 28th. Analysts suggested he may be staying in Pyongyang due to “uncertainty over social stability across the Stalinist country.” An alternative—and more plausible—explanation would focus on potential elite challenges: you don’t leave the capital, and the guard command, when things are uncertain.

On December 6th, Chosun Ilbo, citing the proverbial “informed sources”, alleged that Kim has beefed up security and was “extremely nervous about the possibility of an emergency developing inside North Korea.” It also cited a diplomatic source that said Kim was bolstering personal security because of mounting opposition within the military.

That same day, Yonhap reported “senior South Korean officials” to the effect that the North was “carrying out a massive nationwide campaign to weed out ‘impure elements’ among the populace.” The senior official also said that “we can presume that there could be people discontent with the personnel reshuffles.”

More serious analysts such as Ken Gause have also commented on these trends, noting the continued churning at the top of the military, something we have also tracked and detail below. Gause notes a possible rise in the relative standing of the internal security apparatus, including particularly the Ministry of State Security (국가안전보위부Gukga Anjeon Bowibu). In a high-profile visit to its headquarters in late November, Kim Jong Un called on the ministry’s personnel to “decisively frustrate the moves of the imperialists and reactionaries.” The minister, Kim Won Hong, now holds positions in all three of the main political bodies—the Politburo, Central Military Committee, and National Defense Commission—as well as the rank of general.

The evidence of nervousness extends beyond intra-elite politics to concerns about broader social trends. The Mainichi Shimbun purports to have gained access to remarks made by Kim Jong Un following his well-reported attendance at a concert featuring the Morabong troupe in July. Rather than reflecting a change in leadership style, it appears that Kim Jong Un shared our analysis that the medium may be the message and that the message is subversive. “Seeing performances of the Morabong Troupe, it is possible that young people will adopt bad behavior like swaying their hips suggestively and that unwelcome lifestyle trends may soon spread. They must not be tolerated…Seeing the speed with which the Moranbong performers absorb their rhythms, I think it is possible that the speed at which such a trend could spread in society could also be very fast."

It is probably not coincidental that there have been major gatherings of legal and security officials in Pyongyang in the last month and a half.  On November 23rd, there was a meeting of the Ministry of People’s Security branch chiefs in Pyongyang, attended by the head of the MPS Ri Myong Su, director of the Propaganda Department Kim Ki Nam and director of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces (which is subordinate to the MPS) Ri Pyong Sam. Participants gave an oath to be “matchless and stalwart security personnel devotedly defending the party, social system and people!” (note the order). Kim Jong Un, Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Song Thaek (among others) attended a photo session with these participants a few days later. On November 27th, a national meeting of judges and prosecutors was held in Pyongyang as well; Mike Madden, at the North Korea Leadership Watch blog points out that the officials were told to “heighten revolutionary vigilance and expose and foil moves of enemies, internal and external.” A week later a meeting of judicial officers was held and attended by a number of higher ups in the North Korean elite, including Ri Myong Su. According to Madden, this last meeting brought together the officials who coordinate cases between People’s Security and public prosecutors.

Mapping the Succession

How do these recent developments sit with more general trends? We underline two developments during Kim Jong Un’s first year in power. (Our earlier posts on “mapping the succession” provide more detail and can be found here and here and in our comparison of the Chinese and North Korean Politburos.)

First, there has been major turnover at the top of the military, especially around the time of the Party Conference and SPA meeting in April.

Major Military Purges Under Kim Jong Un

Purged / Demoted Comments Replacements Comments
U Tong Chuk In 2009, was named First Vice Minister of State Security and became member of National Defense Commission. Promoted to General in April 2010. Kim Won Hong In April 2012, named Minister of State Security and appointed to NDC. U Tong Chuk has not been seen publicly since.
Kim Yong Chun In February 2009, appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces Kim Jong Gak April 2012, appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces; Kim Yong Chun is demoted to director of the Party's Civil Defense Department
Ri Yong Ho In September 2010, was appointed Chief of KPA General Staff and promoted to Vice Marshal; considered a key figure in the transition. Hyon Yong Chol Rumors that Ri Yong Ho might have been killed in a gun battle at the time of his dismissal in July 2012.
Kim Jong Gak (see above) In April 2012, was appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces Kim Kyok Sik From November 2012, unconfirmed reports that Kim Kyok Sik has taken over as Minister of the People's Armed Forces

What makes these four purges so fascinating is that they are none other than the four representatives of the military and security apparatuses that were chosen to accompany Kim Jong Il’s casket as it made its way through Pyongyang; they were the military half of what we called The Gang of Eight. Now, one year after Kim Jong Il’s death, three have disappeared and one (Kim Yong Chun) has seen his position in the regime fall considerably.

That Kim Jong Un would want to remake the top of the military order is not surprising. But the second major question is whether something larger is afoot in the relationship between the leadership, the party and the military. In the other posts cited above, we provided some evidence about efforts to rebuild sclerotic party institutions; most notable in this regard was an expansion of the Politburo. Has there now been a subtle turn away from the military toward greater reliance on other power centers?

The chart below is based on all appearances made by Kim Jong Un during his first year in office, dividing his appearances between military and non-military venues. In the first several months of the transition, military units or events were his most frequent destination. These dropped off after the Party Conference, jumped again in the wake of the Ri Yong Ho purge and have in the last three months settled into a pattern that is the mirror image of the first three months, with most visits being non-military in nature.

Too much should not be read into this data; we have seen no fundamental ideological departures from the “military first” foundations of the regime. But the relationship between the leadership and the military has clearly been unsettled during Kim Jong Un’s first year in office. The new leadership seems to be looking for ways to assure control over key military positions while build some institutional counterweights to the power military personnel continue to wield in the political system.



One thing to note: Kim Jong Gak appeared at an event yesterday, so he hasn’t been purged per se. It is likely that he lost his position, but is still an alternate member of the Politburo and has gotten some lesser position.


David Zeglen

I'd like to know how many appearances with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, were military versus non-military. I assume that with the cameras following Ri everywhere they downplayed military visits with her around, but just the same, some statistic data would be useful.

Adam Cathcart

Fascinating post. Regarding the Dec. 4 Dong-A Ilbo article and other assertions that Kim Jong Un is worried about a rebellion or his personal safety, KCNA is obviously not the ultimate arbiter of anything, but it does provide a few interesting reflective data points. On December 11, KCNA made explicit reference to an assassination attempt on Kim Il Sung in 1946, when a grenade was rolled at Kim Il Song at a March 1 rally. References to both rebellion and the need to get out of Pyongyang are embedded in the new day of commemoration, November 29, which Jang Song Taek and others have now dubbed 'Day of Airmen' in North Korea. The back story here -- one with which every good North Korean leader would be familiar, and which Kim Jong Il used to cite -- is that Kim Il Sung "founded" the DPRK air force because he was in Sinuiju to clean up the mess of a bloody student rebellion. Maybe this is the regime simply talking to itself, but the historical points that it makes usually have some contemporary message or intent -- like when Kim Il Sung is suddenly recalled to have befriended many capitalists (of the non-blood-sucking variety, apparently) in Manchuria and during North Korea's postwar reconstruction. So when there's an explicit reference to an assassination attempt on Kim Il Sung after 1945, it bears noting as part of the conversation about the regime locking in for a storm. As for your point about the Moranbong Band's potentially pernicious effects, that's a brilliant point because it indicates that there are surely some rather vigorous debates within ye olde Workers' Party about how fast and how far to push the Moranbong line. Things either move very fast or not at all. It should be noted that to a very large extent, the group is associated as much with high-tech production and militarist propaganda as it is with fashionable haircuts, acceptably posh public consumption by elite women, and the gyration quotient which you spoke about. We are working on a repertoire analysis/ideological schema for Moranbong's performances and would welcome anyone who wants to help with the project. Unfortunately the database is a bit like Ri Sol-ju's pregnancy in that it's not due until the spring and remains highly speculative. Is Moranbong Band on the outs? It takes a huge amount of work to get ready for a single show, so it shouldn't be too alarming if they have been "on break" for almost two months. More to the point, in a huge December 7 review of the year's innovations (which is significantly longer in Korean, as usual), the Moranbong Band received top billing, being listed second only to the more general "Flames of Hannam," while the Sports Commission is mentioned last. There is also the whole "Unhasu Orchestra as avatar for Kim Jong Il vs. Moranbong as avatar for the new generation" theme which invites exploration. Maybe there are no doves in Pyongyang, but some hawks seem to want to dance more than others. Rudiger Frank recently gave an interview with Deutsche Welle where he sees things as being quite internally stable (i.e., no chance of some rebellion breaking out, as opposed to standard jostling within elite ranks). Apologies for the long comment, but your post was quite constructive and it triggered or answered a number of questions for me.

Luke Herman

David, Good question. Ri has made 20 public appearances since being introduced in July, 7 of which count as military. However, 6 of these military appearances were performances by military bands, so obviously much different than if she were to accompany her husband on a military inspection. The one military appearance that wasn't a performance was paying tribute to the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces. If you're interested in other leadership data, check out the database here:


As always, thank you for compiling such massive datasets and following North Korea with near OCD-like detail. Maybe some other ways to interpret information/disinformation:
1) Increased civilian appearances - he feels secure that the military is now in his corner. Shoot a few chickens to frighten the monkeys; Fire a few generals in order to keep the rest in line and ensure they come around to KJU "point of view". 2) Routinizing the charisma transfer as Kwon/Chung and Weber would call it demand that he be seen as true to the "revolutionary / partisan" spirit upon which Kim Il-sung built the original North Korean state. How does one establish revolutionary credentials? Weed out some "anti-revolutionaries". In a dialectic sense, they only need to be declared anti-revolutionary. Their actual sins, whatever they may be, are not so important.


Joe De Trani offers some thoughtful reflections on the recent political changes in the North and their contradictory effects on policy:

Adam Cathcart

Adding to the visual cacophony with the rest of the chipmunks on treadwheels (i.e., while on Twitter), Luke Herman and I managed to figure out that General O Kuk-ryol has not been seen in North Korean media since October. I'm still a bit in the dark as to what General O actually is responsible for, but there it is.


Victor Cha's take on the Kim III's first year:


Luke Herman's overview of the year, with some new data, at:

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff