North Korea Leadership Tracker

November 2, 2012 7:00 AM

Yesterday, NK News—an extremely useful website founded in 2010 by Tad Farrell—launched North Korea Leadership Tracker. The outcome of one year of work by Luke Herman and NK News interns, and co-hosted by the Korea Economic Institute, the NK Leadership Tracker is a data visualization project. It is based on a dataset of every public appearance Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un made from 1994 to the present. The data allows a consideration of:

  • The location and nature of the visits (economic, military, political, diplomatic, arts/cultural)
  • The elites accompanying the two leaders, including their positions and rank in the delegation
  • Details on the event, including media coverage
  • Biographies of all of the elites accompanying the two leaders, a useful indication of the informal power structure.

It takes a kind of wonderful obsession to put this data together, but it provides a variety of insights into the changing nature of the regime over time. Two  highlighted findings give a sense of what the data can do:

  • In 2008, economic and military appearances were roughly equal. Starting in 2009, Kim Jong Il started to make many more economic appearances as the regime talked about building a “strong and prosperous nation” (kangsŏngdaeguk) by Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday in April 2012. By contrast, Kim Jong Un’s military appearances increase steadily through the transition, and economic visits drop sharply in the first half of 2012.
  • Following the ouster of Ri Yong Ho earlier this year, Kim Jong Un started to appear more frequently with party rather than military personnel. Of those accompanying that are classified as “military,” a higher share come from the security services than was true for Kim Jong Il.

Working with Luke Herman, we have constructed informal rankings of the North Korean elite, using frequency of appearances with the leader and network analysis of the position of individuals within the network of those accompanying the leader. We then compared these informal rankings with the formal rankings issued by the regime over time. A striking finding from the most recent period: the official ranking of Jang Song Thaek is substantially lower than his informal ranking, where he appears as the most frequent and most central figure in Kim Jong Un’s entourage. More findings and a working paper to come.

WSJ Korea Real Time coverage of Luke Herman’s work here.  For another valuable source on the leadership, see Michael Madden's North Korea Leadership Watch. At Foreign Policy.com, Madden has an analysis of a recent execution—possibly executions—within the military.

Some earlier posts growing out of this work include Mapping the Succession 1 and Mapping the Succession II, which discusses the role of the military.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff