In the second of this two part series on DPRK leadership dynamics, we look at the emerging group of leaders under Kim Jong Un. The first part in the series (on leadership trends from 1995 to 2017) can be found here.

The first article in this series showed that the new leadership cohort emerging under Kim Jong Un is marked by diversity and infrequency of appearances, but it does seem that there are some key figures emerging, and these are detailed in the table below (Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, has not been included from the list as she does not yet have an official title).

Eleven of the emerging leaders who have been most frequently reported accompanying Kim Jong Un (up to the end of 2016), and the number of appearances they have made by sector. Key data is highlighted in gray.

Months of absence prior to promotion: more likely to be advanced training than a purge

Having been advised by Professor Chung Young-chul of Sogang University of the manner in which mid-career leaders in the DPRK are selected and developed, I set about looking into the career paths of this emerging group of leaders under Kim Jong Un to see if there were any interesting, perhaps common, features.

This involved first using DPRK media reports to identify the dates in which they were reported holding a particular position, and then following up with this by using the South Korean Ministry of Unification’s Korean language online databases to add supplementary information on their career paths, such as their alleged education.

What quickly stood out as a result of this exercise was the clear fact that even the most favored leaders of the Kim Jong Un cohort go through unexplained absences from the Supreme Leader’s side for months – sometimes years – at a time. Upon their return to reported accompaniments of the Supreme Leader, the official in question is typically soon reported with a promoted title. This phenomenon is striking in the following cases:

Ri Yong Gil (리영길)

Underwent a 10-month absence, and was then reported alongside the Supreme Leader in the promoted position of an Army Colonel General and 1st Vice Chief of General Staff (more details in the annex at the end of this article).

Pak Jong Chon (박정천)

Was scarcely reported on for two years, and was then reported alongside the Supreme Leader in the promoted position of a Major General and Director of the Artillery Bureau (more details in the annex at the end of this article).

Even the most favored leaders of the Kim Jong Un cohort go through unexplained absences

Pak Thae Song (박태성)

Underwent an eight-month absence, and was then reported alongside the Supreme Leader in the promoted position of Vice Department Director of the WPK Central Committee. Subsequently, he went through a year’s absence, only to be reported alongside the Supreme Leader as a Member of the SPA Presidium (more details in the annex at the end of this article).

O Su Yong (오수용)

Underwent a three-year absence, and was then reported alongside the Supreme Leader as inter alia a member of the Politburo (more details in the annex at the end of this article).

So Hong Chan (서홍찬)

Underwent a six-month absence then, according to the ROK Ministry of Unification’s Korean language website, enjoyed promotions within the Workers’ Party of Korea and the cabinet (more details in the annex at the end of this article).

Yun Tong Hyon (윤동현)

Underwent a six-month absence, and was then reported alongside the Supreme Leader in the promoted position of Vice Minister of the Korean People’s Army (more details in the annex at the end of this article).

Kim Jong Un inspecting plans for Ryomyong Street | Photo: Naenara

Given the pattern of “absence followed by promotion,” it seems that these periods of absences might not be periods of purging, or of ill health, but of advanced political and military training at a party or military school. 

These include the Kim Il Sung Higher Party School (김일성고급당학교), the National Economic Institute (인민경제대학), the Kim Jong Il Political-Military University (금성정치대학), the Kim Il Sung Military University (김일성군사대학), the Kim Il Sung University of Politics (김일성정치대학), the Kim Chaek Military Academy (김책공군대학), and provincial party universities (official titles are in Korea, author’s translation is in English).

Some of the institutions listed above might be restricted to those leaving high school, but some apparently are purposefully designed for junior or mid-career officials in the party or the military. The idea is that entrants develop their ideological or technical awareness and come out the other side ready for promotion. If correct, then these institutions are the centers through which the future leadership of the DPRK is trained.

Policy implications

The implication of this is that those countries wishing to influence lawfully and effectively the next generation of senior leaders with the DPRK might wish to consider engaging on a government-to-government level with the instructors if not students of these institutions. Such engagement might take the form of paying for DPRK instructors at these centers to spend a period of months of even one or two years at their counterpart institutions abroad.

The policy of expanding student and academic exchanges was encouraged by the Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses in the DPRK (2014), which recommended:

“that States and civil society organizations foster opportunities for people-to-people dialogue and contact in such areas as culture, science, sports, good governance and economic development that provide citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with opportunities to exchange information and be exposed to experiences outside their home country. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and other States should remove applicable obstacles to people-to-people contact, including measures that criminalize travel and contact to the extent that these are not in accordance with relevant obligations under international human rights law.” (COI final report, paragraph 92)

It seems that these periods of absences might not be periods of purging, or of ill health, but of advanced political and military training

Additionally, there is evidence from the Cold War that the long-term effect of this approach leads to significant benefits for the partnering country. As Dr. Andrei Lankov notes in “North Korea and the Subversive Truth” (2009):

“In 1958 four Soviet students were selected by Moscow to enter Columbia University for one year of studies in 1958. One of them, as we know now, was a young KGB operative, while his fellow student was a young but promising veteran of the then still-recent World War II who soon became second in command among Soviet professional ideologues. The KGB operative’s name was Oleg Kalugin, and in the 1980s he was to become the first KGB officer openly to challenge the organization from within. His fellow student, Alexandr Yakovlev, a Communist Party Central Committee secretary, became the closest associate of Mikhail Gorbachev (some people even insist that it was Yakovlev rather than Gorbachev himself who could be described as the real architect of perestroika.) Eventually, both men said it was their experiences in the United States that changed the way they saw the world. So two of the four carefully selected Soviet students of 1958 eventually became the top leaders of perestroika.” (pp. 4-5)

Kim inspects products of the Combined Fishing Tackle Factory of the KPA | Photo: KCNA

Whether the DPRK would be willing to risk sending its selected officials abroad for study is an open question, but it does seem that this would be a highly effective – albeit potentially very long term – strategy for foreign governments to pursue if they wished to gain a deeper understanding of the DPRK leadership training system, future leaders, and if they wished to influence the world view of those leaders.

Caveats

There are several caveats which should be made to these findings, however.

First, although DPRK media offers a unique and official account of which officials are favored within the DPRK, it has several limitations. For the purposes of the task at hand, its biggest limitation is that it only shows us a partial picture of the leadership: there are likely many figures who have leadership positions and are close to Kim Jong Un but do not appear in public appearances with him. Therefore, this article is limited to those individuals which the DPRK chooses to present publicly. Further discussion on sources is in the first article, available here.

Whether the DPRK would be willing to risk sending its selected officials abroad for study is an open question

Second, lest anyone is confused, none of the figures reviewed in this article should be confused as being potential rivals for Kim Jong Un’s position. Kim Jong Un’s position is that of Supreme Leader, and beneath him there are many officials with leadership positions. But they could never be a contender for his position within the current framework: all formal hierarchies, institutional practices, and public discourse stand in the way of any such challenge were it even sought.

Conclusion

This research exercise identified not only a group of leaders emerging under Kim Jong Un, but also exposed a pattern of ‘absence then promotion’.

Being aware of this pattern will be useful to analysts and commentators the next time we are invited to speculate on the possible significance of a leader’s absence from public reporting: we should bear in mind that it might not be a purge, or ill-health, but advanced political or military training.

Furthermore, if I am correct in labeling this pattern of ‘absence then promotion’ as being a period of training at those higher schools, then it may be useful for foreign governments to consider generous educational exchanges with those establishments if they seek to gain longer-term influence on DPRK leadership perspectives.

Further details about some of these rising stars can be found here.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Uriminzokkiri