More than ever since January 2017, “North Korea watchers” have been wrestling with a dilemma typical for analyzing autocracies: does one take a personalist interpretation of the DPRK’s diplomacy and statecraft, honing in on the methods, statements, visions, and quirks of the dictator?
Or, does one maintain a more systemic approach toward the state, and assume that institutions matter, may occasionally conflict, and even have a certain degree of agency?
The personalist view has been very much encouraged by the White House, for obvious reasons. Trump promotes it and revels in that promotion.
Yet analysts must continue their more systemic work on institutions and the people who staff them — not only because actors evading North Korea sanctions are so various, but because some of the North Korean elites presumably operating under the full control of the state’s control apparatus are potential interlocutors, and have particular histories of their own.
In his new report on the Oversight and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers’ Party, Robert Collins provides much grist for a more bureaucratic view of the DPRK, recognizing the importance of a web of individuals and structures in advancing North Korean governance and control.
Collins’ work of the past two years, particularly his report on human rights at the local level, demonstrates his deep interest in moving toward a more bottom-up look at Workers’ Party control of the state.
In Collins’ new report, the dictatorship nevertheless holds things together and stands at the core. The OGD matters because it protects the leadership and polices the Party.
As Collins stated at the report launch, “It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you are, you are ultimately controlled by the OGD, either directly or indirectly….[The OGD holds] a solid record of how you have performed with respect to your relationship to the Supreme Leader.”
The report’s conclusion cannot escape centering on the top leadership (pages 166-167). It is a bracing run through ‘what-ifs’: what if Kim Jong Un were killed, what if the OGD were to be bombed, what if North Korea collapsed?
The supporting cast around Kim is important because they might need eventually to step in (Choe Ryong Hae is fingered as the most acceptable possible alternative). Even without John Bolton as National Security Advisor, there is much interest in this line of more catastrophic projection, as David Maxwell has indicated.
The Collins report is loaded with graphics of interlocking or stove-piped governmental flow charts. In an exemplary humble-brag at the launch, Marcus Noland noted that American military audiences love this kind of stuff in their briefings.
Noland also indicated a gap in our understanding not of the OGD’s current reality, but of its evolution — was it the case that the Department crumbled or stretched during the famine of the 1990s, or was it largely resilient throughout, and capable of capturing vast amounts of data not only of political actions but reasons for death, including famine?
Yet the report shows that even when it has robust data, the dictatorship can render the past irrelevant, as well as the structures of government. After all, Collins shows (page 59) that Kim Jong Il did not convene a Central Committee meeting even once between 1993 and the spring of 2010.
Noland’s hope for extensive archiving seems futile when Collins describes one practice where OGD documents must be memorized before being conveyed downward (page 31), not being copied at all.
There is more to North Korea than the Kim family
The documentary foundations of the report itself are abundantly referenced. Hyun Seong Il, a former DPRK diplomat who defected from Zambia to the ROK in 1996, is cited multiple times; he has been producing materials on North Korea’s cadre management system steadily since his defection.
The report also draws regularly from the work of Jang Jin-sung, the author of a poetic memoir and editor of the website New Focus International who burst into prominence with a sharpening of Hyun’s OGD thesis in 2013.
For readers looking for copies of the otherwise-vanished English version of Jang Jin-sung’s explosive outputs around the execution of Jang Song Taek in late 2013, Collins provides links to archived editions.
MORE TO LIFE THAN KIM JONG UN: BROADER FRAMEWORK AND COMPARISONS NEEDED
The Collins report provides food for thought about broader debates of how to interpret North Korean leaders and the institutions of state.
Historian Andre Schmid also argues for a broader analytical frame for looking at the interactions between North Korean leaders, the Korean Workers’ Party, and society.
This argument burns through in the Toronto professor’s review of historiography and critique of B.R. Myers, published in a recent issue of the American Historical Review.
Schmid seems perturbed that anyone could publish a monograph in 2010 in which the North Korean polity consists only of Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, and a generalized public which is by turns child-like and fanatical.
To analyze North Korea only through the prism of a single family, no matter how powerful, results in a peculiar kind of blindness, or, to use a term from Bruce Cumings’ neglected travelogue “War and Television,” a ‘nystagmus’.
Schmid’s concerns regarding North Korean managers in small enterprises in the 1950s are ultimately much less pulse-pounding than Myers’ reading of the alternating sweetness and axe-murder of North Korean propaganda, but they suffice in advancing the argument: there is more to North Korea than the Kim family.
North Korean studies, he argues, could benefit from more work in more archives, less focus on the dictators, and more alignment and cross-pollination with findings on leadership structures in Soviet studies (Stephen Kotkin, Sheila Fitzpatrick) as well on elite debates, provincial-level leadership and autonomy in Maoist China (S.G. Goodman and David Bachman).
Comparative study of course has its dangers as well, and this is particularly relevant when it comes to the OGD.
It is one thing to understand how the OGD functions in North Korea, but it really is insufficient to simply map the Iraqi Ba’athist model onto the OGD, call the institution a ‘cancer that has taken over the cells’ of the Workers’ Party, and call for surgery in a hypothetical future U.S./ROK military operation in North Korea — as David Maxwell did with great eagerness as a discussant at the report launch.
THE OGD AND PATTERNS OF DISCIPLINE IN THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
The response of Markus Garlauskas to the Collins report was perhaps most consequential, since the National Intelligence Officer for North Korea on the National Intelligence Council hones in on precisely the value of the comparative analysis.
Too often with the OGD there seems to be a fixation not so much on its malevolence or high level of control, but how uniquely malevolent or controlling it is.
However, even though it reflects Kim Jong Il’s influence from the early 1970s, in many respects it sounds as if its control is not particularly unique at all, at least when it comes to Leninist party-states. Namely, its kinship with the Chinese Communist Party’s Zuzhibu (Organization Department) is among the most valuable terrain covered by Collins.
The suggestion by Garlauskas to pay further heed to this topic suggests that a more in-depth study of Chinese and North Korean party guidance and discipline organizations would be fruitful.
One question Collins does not deal with in his short section of the report on China’s OGD equivalent is to what extent it is observed by or interacted with North Korea.
To analyze North Korea only through the prism of a single family, no matter how powerful, results in a peculiar kind of blindness
The head of China’s Organization Department from 2007 to 2012, Li Yuanchao, was in post during a major purge of Bo Xilai. Less than a year after leaving that post, he spent several days in Pyongyang as a guest of Kim Jong Un, and public security and party work remains part of the channel of communication between the two states.
Outside of the more high-profile cases like the Bo Xilai purge, the Chinese comrades have vast experience of enacting party discipline across disparate provinces, and, to an extent, rooting out corruption within the Party, and they can also look to North Korea for methods of party management.
Since Xi Jinping’s rise as chief executive, the Organization Department in Beijing has been to an extent paralleled and superseded by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (jilu jiancha weiyuanhui).
In 2015, Willy Lam called the power of the Commission “unprecedented.” An assumption of North Korea as less sui generis might mean that we would be able to ask to what extent Chinese changes in cadre inspection, regional appointments (for example the practice of not appointing cadre at the national level to serve in their local region), promotion (as discussed by Melanie Menon), or anti-corruption campaigns map onto adaptations or activities of the OGD.
Stephan Blancke’s outstanding paper on cooperation between public security and espionage organs of China and the DPRK might give some direction for further analysis here, as does an ongoing spread in literature on Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns.
In Part two of this essay, I will move beyond the Collins report to ask the following questions: ‘What is North Korea learning from China about cultures of Party discipline, and vice versa?’ ‘Is institutional control of what Garlauskas calls “the 13%” entirely coercive?’ and ‘To what extent is a North Korean leader surrounded by loyalists either new or a danger?’
As shall be shown, these three seemingly discrete questions are in fact unified by an undertone that Collins’ report has provided.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA