Summer Reading I: Ken Gause on the North Korean Police State

July 20, 2012 7:00 AM

Ken Gause is one of the most deeply knowledgeable North Korea watchers in the country. His specialty is close analysis of personnel movements within the major government institutions, including the military: the cycles of promotions and purges that are a central feature of the highly personalist North Korean political system. His most recent book, North Korea under Kim Chong-ilprovides a blow-by-blow account of the Kim Jong-il era through this lens and is a must read.

Gause has now produced a major overview of the internal security apparatus of the country for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea entitled Coercion, Control, Surveillance and Punishment: A Guide to North Korea’s Internal Security Agencies (.pdf here). It is also a must-read. For anyone with serious interest in North Korea, the historical section—drawing on an array of Korean and Japanese sources—is a particularly compelling tale of court intrigue.

The first half of the report is taken up with an analysis of the three core security institutions and their complex links to the top leadership:

  • The State Security Department (SSD), or Ministry of State Security (MSS), has about 50,000 personnel and resembles most closely our model of a secret police. Overseen by the KWP Administrative Department--headed by Jang Song-taek—the Bo-wi-bu (from Gukga An-jeon Bo-wi-bu) focuses on anti-regime activities. These include not only political but economic crimes and surveillance of those who are potentially suspicious, including personnel returning from abroad. The SSD also monitors the border and runs the political prison camp system.
  • The massive Ministry of People’s Security (MPS, In-min Bo-an-bu)—with over 200,000 personnel--provides basic police services. But given the expansive nature of crime in the North Korean system, this task includes monitoring citizens' political attitudes, doing background investigations, controlling internal travel and protecting state property. The Political Bureau of the MPS monitors party members. Partly for this reason and partly to assure control, it is also under the control and guidance of the party’s powerful Organization and Guidance Department.
  • The Military Security Command (MSC), finally, performs surveillance and policing functions within the Korean People’s Army (KPA), over and above the control exercised by the KPA’s General Political Bureau. 
  • However, these big three are by no means the end of it. Monitoring of the population by these agencies is facilitated by the neighborhood organization watches, the in-min-ban system, which reports to the three main security agencies as well as the periodic mobilization of ad hoc investigative bodies (“anti-socialist” units, squads organized to ferret out illicit cultural products, and so on).

Two things are striking about the organization Gause outlines: its sheer weight and reach; and the tremendous amount of effort put into monitoring the government, party and military. This is by no means an apparatus limited to control of the citizenry; it is also a complex system of checks on possible sources of opposition from within. In the last third of the report, which looks at the history of the security apparatus, this point becomes abundantly clear. That history shows how the security apparatus is repeatedly deployed to weed out enemies of the leadership, but also must be continually restructured to avoid the classic problem of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” Who guards the guardians?

After this organizational tour de horizon, Gause walks through the myriad activities of these organizations, which extend beyond surveillance and information gathering to their role in the legal system. One of the most powerful agencies of North Korea’s political system is the Procuracy, which has the power to audit other state organs. But given the discretion exercised by the security apparatus, their judgment of guilt is often determinative of what happens in the courts. Indeed, the agencies play a role from the prosecutorial process straight through to their involvement in the sprawling penal system; we look at the role of the penal system with respect to economic crimes in Witness to Transformation and David Hawk’s updated study of the gulag make the same point.

The end of the long historical section on security apparatus closes with a close look at the succession. Two points emerge. First, and not surprisingly, the security apparatus figured prominently in the new appointments made during the transition; we have highlighted the more general phenomenon in an earlier post, but Gause fills in the details on appointments to both the Politburo and increasingly-significant Central Military Committee. But the second point to emerge is that the flipside of every new appointment is a corresponding purge. Gause portrays a system characterized by incredible churning, including a major purges of the SSD and repeated shuffling of top internal security positions over the course of 2011 and 2012.

As Gause rightly concludes, these changes do not appear to have any significance for policy or for the public. But they are crucially significant for the consolidation of Kim Jong Un’s rule, as he relies on the security apparatus not only to control the public but to check important sources of power within the regime itself.  We share Gause’s view that the system has orchestrated the transition smoothly, but the revealed need to continually purge the security apparatus at leaves gives you some pause. Can such a system really be altogether stable?

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff