This is part of a larger series examining some of North Korea’s key institutions. The series has also covered the State Affairs Commission, the Politburo and the Central Committee, the Central Military Commission, the Supreme People’s Assembly, the Cabinet of Ministers, non-Party organizations, paramilitaries, local administration, the system of jurisprudence, and the Ministry of Railroads.

Of all the DPRK’s institutions, the country’s secret police, currently called the Ministry for Protection of the State (국가보위성), is the least researched and the least known to the general public.

There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, everything related to the secret police in the DPRK falls under the two highest levels of secrecy – either “top secret” or “ultimate secret”. For example, a 2002 telephone book leaked from the DPRK had no numbers of secret police offices, despite including the numbers of the Central Committee – understandable, since the book was only “secret” and not “top secret.” Very few of these documents have been leaked to the outside world.

Second, the South Korean intelligence services are very reluctant to share the information they have on the DPRK secret police – likely in order not to compromise their network. Thus, for example, the Ministry of Unification yearbook on North Korea normally names only three or four top officials in the North Korean secret police and almost nothing else, despite having much more detailed information on many other institutions.

Other countries who may have something noteworthy on the subject – China, United States, Russia and Japan – also do not share the information they have (for example, one U.S. document about the general structure of the DPRK police in the 1950s was declassified only in 2003 – and the document contained errors).

The very few bits of information on its structure, history, and duties which are available now are collected in this analysis.

The history of the secret police

The prototype organization of the North Korean secret police would be its Soviet counterpart, which in 1943-1953 was called the Ministry of State Security. The USSR had two types of police – the criminal and the secret – and throughout Soviet history, they were separate institutions, and in others, they were merged into one People’s Commissariat or Ministry. This tradition was reflected in the history of the North Korean secret police as well.

Origins

In colonial Korea, the police were managed by the Police Bureau (警務局) of the Government-General. Like other colonial institutions, it fell into disarray soon after the Japanese surrender in 1945 and was soon superseded by the new administration. Security in northern Korea was then managed by the Red Army, although the Soviets soon created a Korean proto-government to create the image of northern Korea being run by its people.

The first chief of the Police Department (департамент полиции, translated to Korean as 보안국) was Kim Il Sung’s friend Choe Yong Gon, although, in practice, his orders were written in Russian by Soviet officers and then translated to Korean and signed by him.

The first months of the Soviet rule saw at least two thousand people arrested and thrown in prisons – most for minor transgressions. The prisoners were normally beaten by prison guards, but in Autumn 1945 an order signed by Choe condemned this practice and the prison guards were told not to torture the inmates.

The Police department was shaped in November 1945, when the Soviets were already firmly in control of the North. Eventually, the Security Corps (보안대) was attached to it and they both became the prototypes of DPRK’s criminal and secret police.

With the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, the organization was reorganized into the Ministry of Internal Affairs (내무성, MIA). The secret police, called the Bureau of Political Protection (정치보위국), became one of its departments.

In 1951, during the Korean War, the secret police was separated from the MIA. Its new name was Ministry of Social Security (사회안전성, MSS). The new system remained in place for less than two years and in 1952, the MSS was merged back into the MIA, becoming the Bureau of Social Security (사회안전국).

Next was the reorganization of the Ministry conducted by Pang Hak Se, the-then Minister of Internal Affairs, in 1956. The Ministry was divided into nine bureaus (국) and nine agencies (처). The consequences of this reform can be seen even up to the present day: for example, it is the Seventh Department which has been managing concentration camps since then.

In 1962, both the police and the secret police were separated into the reborn Ministry of Social Security, while the MIA only managed the DPRK’s infrastructure. The secret police became the Bureau of Political Protection (정치보위국) in the Ministry.

In 1972, Kim Il Sung rewrote the DPRK Constitution. The Ministry of Social Security became the Department of Social Security (사회안전부), but this system only stuck for a few months, as in 1973 the secret police became a separate department under the Central People’s Committee.

suits photo

Everything related to the secret police in the DPRK falls under the two highest levels of secrecy | Photo by nknews_hq

The secret police as a separate institution

Unlike many other events in North Korea in the 1970s, the separation of the secret and criminal police organizations was covered in an open access publication. The year after the separation happened, Kong Thak-ho (공탁호), a secret police instructor from Kaesong, fled to South Korea across the DMZ. Kong’s memoirs shade some light on this event.

According to Kong, preparation for the division began in 1972, as some officers from the MSS were put on probation for possible work in the secret police. Kong remembered that the chosen ones were quite surprised by the decision of the leadership. Interestingly, the major qualifying factor was a candidate’s kyechung: it had to be the highest “nucleus” category. Loyalty to the Party, rather than skills specifically related to police work, were most important.

Kong Thak-ho, along with a few dozen people assigned to the Ninth Bureau (responsible for wiretapping) were sent to Pyongyang for education, and in January 1973 they started working, targeting people with hostile kyechung. Kim Il Sung passed instructions on the establishment of the Department for Political Protection of the State (국가정치보위부), as the secret police were to be called from then on, on February 15, 1973 (notably, one day before Kim Jong Il’s birthday). In practice, the secret police became wholly independent only in May, but it was February 15 which was considered its birthday. This is how the secret police’s official covert name – “unit 215” (215군부대) – originated.

Kong’s testimony revealed that the four tasks the Central Committee set before the secret police were watching the people, counterintelligence, rooting out the South Korean ideas which started to spread after the 1972 Joint Declaration, and guiding DPRK agents in South Korea.

A special emphasis was put on a crackdown on people who disobeyed Kim Il Sung. The secret police used special nicknames for these: “incident 9” (9반사건) was for cases of someone criticising Kim Il Sung and “incident 5” (5번사건) for when someone insulted the Great Leader of Revolution. The secret police were given the authority to execute the transgressors without a trial – a practice later abolished and which currently does not exist. Crimes against the Leader were to be interpreted in the broadest sense – Kong himself had to flee the North facing the prospect of a near-certain execution for accidentally spilling some ink on Kim Il Sung’s portrait in a book.

During the reorganization of the DPRK’s top state institutions in 1982, the “political” was dropped from the name of the secret police and it became the “Department for Protection of the State” (국가보위부). Another rebranding came in 1993, when it became the “Department for Protection of the State Security” (국가안전보위부) and, finally, in 2016 when Kim Jong Un named it the Ministry for Protection of the State (국가보위성, MPS).

Despite being called a ministry, the MPS is not part of the Cabinet of Ministers, instead, it reports to the State Affairs Commission, i.e. to Kim Jong Un himself. Before that, it reported to the National Defence Commission.

Chiefs of the secret police

One of the most vivid manifestations of the fact of how little is known about the DPRK secret police is that not even all the men who headed it are known by name. Before 1973, the secret police was merely one of the departments of the police ministry and its heads were normally not included in works about North Korea.

This section is dedicated to what information is available on these men.

The early history of the DPRK secret police is closely linked to the figure of Pang Hak Se (방학세). Born Nikolaj Pan (Николай Игнатьевич Пан) in Russian Far East, this man quickly rose in ranks of the Soviet Secret Police – People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs – and survived the Great Terror. He was the only Soviet Korean to stay in power in the DPRK for decades until his natural death in 1992 – and, perhaps, the only chief of the DPRK secret police to do that as well.

Pang presided over the secret police until 1952, when he was promoted to Minister of Internal Affairs. Although he was later removed from this position, he never fell out of favor and was never purged. People who knew Pang said he was completely and utterly loyal to Kim Il Sung, and this is how he survived this dangerous job.

As for Pang’s successors, even their names are unknown. As mentioned above, before 1973, the secret police was not an independent institution and most of the publications on the subject did not include lists of those who headed departments in the Ministry for Social Security and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The lists likely exist in South Korean archives but are yet to be declassified.

Reportedly, somewhere around 1956-57, the secret police cut ties with its Soviet counterpart, as Kim Il Sung said that the secret policemen were starting to “lose their national spirit” and the cooperation ended.

The first head of the secret police as an independent organization, Kim Pyong Ha (김병하), according to some reports, was a relatively high-ranking bodyguard of Kim Il Sung. However, Kong Thak-ho’s testimony says there was a much simpler reason for Kim Pyong Ha being chosen to lead the secret police: he was Kim Il Sung’s nephew-in-law.

Kim Pyong Ha occupied this position until the 1980s, when the secret police were facing checks and the entire structure of the armed and security force was reshuffled. Reportedly, Kim committed suicide in order to avoid being purged.

His successor Ri Jin Su (리진수) began his career as a professional policeman, having worked as such since 1945. In 1957, he became the Vice-Chairman of the Supreme Court. As Kim Pyong Ha was appointed to lead the secret police in 1973, Ri Jin Su became the head of the criminal one.

Ri Jin Su’s policy was reportedly more focused on international than internal threats. He reorganized the Second Bureau (제2국), responsible for foreign policy, into four sections: the first was responsible for Europe, the second one for North America and the fourth for East Asia. The third section was a “general” one. Ri also strengthened border control and strived to make agreements with the USSR and the PRC which would allow Pyongyang to dispatch its agents to the Soviet Union and China to catch people who fled from the DPRK. He also managed to take over the border guards – from then on, they reported to the secret police – not to the criminal one.

Ri Jin Su died in 1987 under strange circumstances. In August 1987, his body was found in a village in South Hwanghae province, which he had been supposed to visit during an inspection. It looked like an accident – some said it was a car crash and others said that the general suffered from coal gas poisoning. This would have been possible in winter – but August 1987 was a warm month.

Reportedly, Kim Jong Il was shocked by Ri’s death. He ordered the body of the late minister to be dressed in a uniform of General of the Army and buried with state honors.

Moreover, after Ri Jin Su’s demise, it was decided not to appoint a new head of the secret police, redelegating his duties to the First Vice-Chairman. This led to rumors that Kim Jong Il himself had become the chief, although, reportedly, that was not formally so.

The term of the first First Vice-Chairman to lead the secret police, Kim Yong Ryong (김영룡) was arguably the hardest for the organization, as it saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and all communist regimes in Eastern Europe. In 1992, Kim Jong Il convened a meeting of the secret police and said: “The Soviet Union and all the countries of Eastern Europe are gone. If we show weakness today, tomorrow will be a dark day for us. For when socialism collapses the first men to be purged are Party and security workers”.  

Under Kim Yong Ryong, the secret police orchestrated a purge under the codename “30s and 40s”. “30s” (30번) was a codename for pro-Soviet elements and “40s” (40번) for pro-Chinese. The way former allies of the DPRK were developing was considered very dangerous in Pyongyang. He also presided over the purge of graduates of the Frunze academy and the rebellious officers of the Sixth Corps.

Kim Yong Ryong himself was a professional secret policeman. Born in 1942, he was only a year younger than Kim Jong Il and studied with the future Dear Leader in Kim Il Sung University. Understandably, his career skyrocketed and, under Ri Jin Su, he became one of his deputies and took over after Ri’s demise.

Kim Jong Il and Kim Yong Ryong were reportedly very close. One of the “lecture materials” (강연제강) on Kim Jong Il’s greatness told the following story. Kim Jong Il called one ‘responsible worker’ (책임일군), whose secretary said that the cadre was paying his monthly Party fee. In a show of humility, Kim Jong Il merely asked if he can call again in five minutes.

The story was reportedly true, but it missed the key element. The ‘responsible worker’ was Kim Yong Ryong and Kim Jong Il was just being nice to his good associate. However, general Kim, being a smart man, remembered the episode and personally instructed to have it included in the teaching materials about the Dear Leader.

In the late 1990s, however, Kim Yong Ryong’s power started to fade, as the secret police came under attack by a competing agency: the military police, which had just orchestrated a purge of the leadership of the Union of Socialist Workers Youth. In December 1997, the secret police faced an inspection. Some cadres – like Choe Man Hung (최만흥), the chief of North Phyongan province, lost their positions. Others, like the head of the counterintelligence bureau, Jong Chan Gyun (정찬균), were executed. Kim Yong Ryong disappeared at that time and rumor had it that he took his own life by drinking poison. South Korean intelligence said that in his later years, Kim called for the DPRK to pursue the way of reforms and openness which may have been true, given the catastrophic situation of the North Korean economy in the late 1990s.

The next man to reportedly head the secret police was Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek, who as the readers know, was very publicly purged in 2013. His successor, U Tong Chuk, was one of the eight men to carry Kim Jong Il’s coffin in 2011 – in 2012 he disappeared and there were reports that he committed suicide. The next chief of the secret police, Kim Won Hong, was purged.

  
Jang Song ThaekU Tong ChukKim Won Hong

Kim’s successor is the current minister, Jong Kyong Thaek. Given that, as the table below shows, the only one of his predecessors to definitely die of natural causes was Pang Hak Se, it is entirely possible that he may share the sorry fate which normally awaits the chief of the secret police in North Korea.

Heads of the DPRK secret police

NameReported fatePositionTerm in power
Pang Hak Se

방학세/方學世

NDHead of the Bureau for Political Protection of the Ministry of Internal Affairs

내무성 정치보위국 국장

September 1948 – March 1951
Minister for Social Security

사회안전상

1951-1952
UnknownHead of the Bureau for Social Security of the Ministry of Internal Affairs

내무성 사회안전국 국장

1952-1956
Head of the First Bureau (Bureau for Social Security) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs

내무성 제1국(사회안전국) 국장

1956-1962
Head of the Bureau for Political Protection of the Ministry for Social Security

사회안전성 정치보위국 국장

1962-1972
Head of the Bureau for Political Protection of the Department for Social Security

사회안전부 정치보위국 국장

1972-1973
Kim Pyong Ha

김병하/金炳夏

SChairman of the Department for Political Protection of the State

국가정치보위부 부장

1973-1982
Ri Jin Su

리진수/李鎭洙

SAChairman of the Department for Protection of the State

국가보위부 부장

1982-1987
Kim Yong Ryong

김영룡/金英龍

SFirst Vice-Chairman of the Department for Protection of the State

국가보위부 제1부부장

1988-1993
First Vice-Chairman of the Department for Protection of the State Security

국가안전보위부 제1부부장

1993-1998
Jang Song Thaek

장성택/張成澤

P1999-2005
U Tong Chuk

우동측/禹東測

S2005-April 2012
Kim Wong Hong

김원홍/金元弘

PChairman of the Department for Protection of the State Security

국가안전보위부 부장

April 2012-June 2016
Minister for Protection of the State

국가보위상

June 2016-2017
Jong Kyong Thaek

정경택/鄭敬澤

AJanuary 2018-current

* ND = died of natural causes, P =purged, A=alive, S=commited suicide, SA = supposedly assassinated

Current structure

As was mentioned above, the South Korean Unification Ministry yearbook, which normally contains very detailed information on North Korea, has only named three top officials of the ministry. The current Minister for Protection of the State is Colonel General Jong Kyong Thaek (정경택), Vice-Minister is Lieutenant General So Tae Ha (서대하), and the chairman of the Political Bureau of the ministry (정치국 국장) is an officer called Kim Chang Sop (김창섭). The information given in previous yearbooks is equally scarce.

Yet, by using various sources, it is possible to collect information about the Ministry and its departments – although, given the situation, it may be partially incorrect or obsolete.

The Ministry’s headquarters is located in Pyongyang to the north of the Taedong river and can be seen on the satellite image below.

The Ministry for Protection of the State | Photo: Google Earth

On the occasion of the opening of Kim Jong Il’s statue at the ministry, its headquarters were shown in North Korean media.

The Ministry for Protection of the State | Photo: KCNA

The ministry is divided into a number of bureaus (국):

#

Name

Duties

1

Political Bureau

정치국

Fights political crime, organizes purges. The Special Tribunal reports to this department.

2

Counterintelligence Bureau

해외반탐국

Consists of four sections. The first one was responsible for Europe, the second one – for North America and the fourth one – for East Asia. The third section is a “general” one.

3

Escort Bureau*

경호국

Escorts Kim Jong Un during his visits to military units.

4

Unknown

Responsible for foreign intelligence

5

Prosecution Bureau

검찰국

Oversees the state prosecution.

6

Investigation Bureau

수사국

Has a number of sub-departments known under codenames. “Operation 98” (98작전 ) manages families of people who fled the DPRK, “Executive 620”(620상무) is responsible for illegal videos, “Group 322” (322 그루빠) oversees the Sino-North Korean border, “Military shop 518” (518군상) was responsible for production of drugs in concentration camps, and “Group 109” (109 그루빠)’s duty is to prevent a spread of South Korean culture.

7

Edification Bureau

교화국*

Manages the country’s concentration camps.

8

Unknown

Responsible for repatriates from Japan.

* The Third Bureau has two covert names – Fifth Directorate (5총국) and Executive Directorate (행사총국). The Seventh Bureau also uses a covert name “‘Bureau for Farming Guidance” (농장지도국)

Reportedly, there are two more bureaus in the ministry. The Eleventh Bureau manages people abducted by the DPRK special services and the Thirteenth Bureau deals with foreign radio broadcasts.

Media

Like other DPRK organizations, the secret police also has its own media – which is classified.

Initially, the name of the newspaper of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was Powi (보위), which at some point was reformatted to a bulletin called Kukka powi (국가보위). Of course, the bulletin is classified, and, according to NK Pro sources, one must return after reading.

Employment

The secret police in the DPRK is almost entirely considered a man’s job. The only place a woman can occupy there is that of a telephone operator (교환수). Thus, a secret policeman of any significance is always a man.

The main criteria for joining the ranks of the secret police is one’s songbun and kyechung. To become a secret policeman, one’s relatives to the sixth generation should be of a nucleus or special kyechung and for high-ranking officers, this goes up to eight. Thus, the number of potential candidates is quite small.

workers party photo

Party loyalty is a key requisite for party membership | Photo by nknews_hq

University

Located in Ryongsong area (룡성구역) of Pyongyang, the Political University of the Ministry for Protection of the State (국가보위성 정치대학) accepts only Party members as students. Education lasts for five years, with students attending classes in politics, military studies, socialist economy, sociology, and psychology. The course also includes four types of training exercises: fighting, shooting, equipment training (this one includes driving), and psychological training.

Duties

The secret police’s main duty is combating political crimes. Those who are critical of the regime are dealt with according to the DPRK Penal Code or by extrajudicial means – through decisions of the local Security Council, chaired by the head of the local Party organization.

Control over the population does not necessarily include repression in all cases. There was a case during one election of local People’s Assemblies in North Hamgyong province when one girl put only one of two ballots in the ballot box. She was visited by secret police, although after they learned that she was voting for the first time and got confused, they just explained to the girl how one is supposed to vote – to put all the ballots in the box – and left her house.

The second task is censorship. All North Korean publications are required to be approved by the state, and a high ranking secret police officer – like a city chief – typically puts a visa on it.

Next, the secret police guard the borders and as such, is responsible for issuing exit visas and passports to citizens. In recent years, it became possible to bribe the secret police to get a passport, although the price is excruciatingly expensive. Chinese citizens residing in the DPRK also receive their exit visas there, although in their cases, these are granted automatically. Interestingly, the secret policemen cannot issue passports for themselves or their relatives without a high-level authorization, so, defecting from the DPRK or visiting foreign nations does not become easier for those who have relatives there.

The secret police also oversee some, but not all, border guard units. And, finally, they are also in charge of the DPRK’s concentration camps. They run most of the resettlement centers (이주민 관리소), where in most cases, people are sent by extrajudicial means. The guards are specifically trained to despise the inmates and even occasional display of kindness towards the prisoners can get them in trouble. 

Families of secret policemen are quite privileged, but the state ensures that these privileges do not become too extreme. Only in the mid-2000s were wives of secret policemen permitted to trade at marketplaces, and if someone in the family defects, the officer himself can easily be subjected to punishment.

newspaper photo

Control of information is a crucial part of the secret police’s daily work |Photo by nknews_hq

As in the Soviet Union, police ranks were different from those of the army in the earlier years of the DPRK, but were later unified with the military. The changes came on July 1, 1957, with the order “On establishing the military ranks for responsible cadres and civil servants in the Internal Affairs organizations” (내무기관 책임지휘 성원 및 문관들의 군사칭호의 제정에 대하여), when military ranks were established in the MIA.

Thus, since 1957, like in the Soviet Union, secret policemen all hold military ranks. The Soviet tradition dictated that policemen could not be promoted higher than a full general, and in the DPRK’s police, this rule was never broken – the highest rank a secret policeman can get is that of four-star General of the Army.

Rank

Corresponding position

General of the Army

대장

Minister for Protection of the State

국가보위상

Colonel General

상장

Minister, Vice-Minister, Chief of the Political Department of the Ministry, President of the Political University of the Ministry for Protection of the State

국가보위상, 국가 보위성 부상,국가보위성 정치국 국장, 국가보위성 정치대학 총장

Lieutenant General

중장

Vice-Minister, Chief of the Political Department of the Ministry, President of the Political University of the Ministry for Protection of the State

국가 보위성 부상,국가보위성 정치국 국장, 국가보위성 정치대학 총장

Major General

소장

Chief of  a department in the Ministry, Chief of a Provincial bureau

국가 보위성 국장, 도 보위국 국장

Senior Colonel

대좌

Colonel

상좌

Chief of a city bureau

시 보위국 국장

Lieutenant Colonel

중좌

Chief of a county bureau

군 보위국 국장

Major

소좌

The Special Tribunal

The Ministry also has its own tribunal, most known for publicly sentencing Jang Song Thaek to death in 2013. Before that, its very existence was kept secret. This tribunal operates in the same building as the Central Court does and convenes to sentence the most important political offenders.

The Special Military Tribunal of the Ministry for Protection of the State | Photo: Rodong Sinmun

Conclusion

The structure and the duties of the secret police were largely established in 1973 when it became a separate institution. It is largely responsible for suppressing dissent and strengthening the rule of the Kim family, although some of its duties – including intelligence and guarding the Leader – overlap with other agencies.

The secret police largely rely on social hierarchy as the means of checking potential employees. As such, while it is a prestigious institution, the number of people who can serve there is quite small and competition for positions is lower than it could be.

The Kim family fully understands that the secret police is the cornerstone of its power. Thus, the secret police always received priority in supply and its head reports directly to the Supreme Leader. This, however, does not mean that this is not a dangerous job: most of its leaders did not die a natural death, after all.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: KCNA