No one is ever quite entirely sure of what goes on in North Korea, but unlike other mysteries what goes on in North Korea can have serious repercussions on the world stage.
Given the recent multiple crises in the world from ISIL, Ukraine, South and East China seas, as well as Israel, it is time to reassess beliefs about situations and norms that had long been static. While it may be presumption to attempt to forecast the collapse or survivability of the North Korean regime itself (as this article does), it would certainly be worthwhile to determine the possibility of a power shift within the regime.
The most recognizable and obvious figure in the North Korea is Kim Jong-Un and the Kim family. Kim Jong-Un is the titular head of the regime that moved into power after the death of his father Kim Jong-Il. Within North Korea the Kim family is considered godlike and the power of the party depends on its image. There are a number of Kim’s scattered within the bureaucracy some are listed on this website. However, another group which seems to be at the center of power is the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). This organization is responsible for human resources, monitoring, political thought guidance, arrests, and providing care for the Kim family.
While there is some debate as to the degree of power this organization holds, I believe that it is the true power behind North Korean politics for two reasons. First, based on past actions the OGD has slandered a Kim family member (a big deal there) and removed Jang Song-Taek from power. Second, as mentioned before, the organization has a large amount of bureaucratic power that it can exercise over the whole government apparatus, including the military. This is not to say that there is no level of symbiosis with Kim Jong-Un or the Kim family, but the relationship is clearly skewed in favor of the OGD. This is unlike Kim Jong-Il’s absolute authority over the OGD and other agencies within the government.
As for the macro-climate of North Korea, the country is in a state of total disrepair. Famine and wide scale breakdown has led many North Koreans to rely on private markets for real income and sustenance. There has also been a significant disruption in the daily lives of North Koreans after severe famines occured in the 90’s and the end to the rationing system came about, and more recently when Kim Jong-Un was thrust into power without the gradual succession that Kim Jong-Il had.
Each political group has different capabilities that I divide into two categories: 1) technical abilities (what the groups can do) and 2) motivational abilities (what the groups would like to do).
Regarding technical abilities, it is fair to say that a group can exert its will through rules (rank, procedure, authority), influence (status, networks, persuasion, knowledge), force (guns, tanks, monitoring, etc.), and cooperation (bargaining, symbiotic relationships). This is not dissimilar to the model used by Subrahmanian to predict who the next leader of a terrorist group will be once the current leader is removed.
Using this model I will divide the two political groups by the criteria of rules, influence, force, and cooperation.
|Organization and Guidance Department (OGD)||The Kim Family|
|Rules:||The administrative authority over other government departments.||Kim Jong-Un is the head of the country and supreme leader so rule making authority comes directly from him.|
|Influence:||In charge of thought law which is highly influential throughout the North Korean legal and education system.||The people tend to believe he and his family are godlike so it makes it easy for him to influence, though he is young and without much experience. However, using reverent names such as ‘Marshal’ have ceased as the recent Jang Song Taek purge led to referencing the Kim family in more human terms. While this may seem superficial to Westerners, these are quite significant changes in North Korea.|
|Force:||In charge of surveillance and arrests which give it significant domestic power.||While technically in command Kim Jong-Un does not select his own bodyguards, the OGD does. That means all communications and visits go through them.|
|Cooperation:||A cooperative relationship with the Kim family does exist.||Most likely has to rely on advisors or handlers for his decisions but the family has a large number of connections throughout the state.|
This analysis does not encompass the full spectrum of government departments in North Korea or the role of political parties within the country. What can be seen from here however, is that the North Korean state is far from the monolith it appears to be and has devolved considerably since the death of Kim Jong-Il. That means that there is room for conflict and factional infighting as demonstrated by the purge of Jang Song Taek.
Easily the largest possible source of conflict is the division of resources within the elite apparatus. Especially important is the role of foreign currency earners who can help buy import goods not easily found in North Korea. Values can also be a source of division, such as disagreement over the policy direction within the country. Finally, identification with one group can create conflict by groups fighting to maintain the status or honor of the group when confronted by individuals or other groups seeking to improve their own positions.
Based on these factors and my own analysis I would like to make a prediction about the future stability of North Korean politics. My prediction is that future North Korean politics will be characterized by purges and political infighting between the OGD and other ministries. As the OGD accumulates power the role of the Kim family will diminish and eventually be fully controlled by members of the OGD.
Of course, there could be an upset in the balance of power at any time. However, my assumption here is that the administrative powers given to the OGD in surveillance, personnel selection, and guarding the Kim family give it a strong advantage over any rival groups.
Featured Photo by Roman Harak.