Jang Jin-sung on Who Killed Kim Jong-nam
Jang Jin-sung, editor of New Focus International and author of Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee, A Look Inside North Korea (2014)—poses the question of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination through a different lens. In a two-part post (here and here) he asks which organizations were actually responsible for implementing the hit? His answer: look to the party rather than military.
Jang rehearses an insider debate, which has naturally focused on the role of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (Global Security overview here). Reorganized in 2009, this intelligence agency—which organizationally falls under the General Staff Department—grew and added units that handled inter-Korean issues and covert operations against the South. Because of its combination of intelligence and covert special forces capabilities, it is natural to think they were involved.
Jang, by contrast, believes that the role of the military shifted subtly after the ascent of Kim Jong-il and he focuses on a different set of players. In Part II of the post, Jang goes through why the State Security Department (or Ministry of State Security) and KWP Operations Department were likely not responsible. South Korean intelligence focused on the Ministry of State Security, but Jang notes that it focuses primarily on domestic security and dismissed these assertions. The KWP Operations Department is primarily preoccupied with the South.
Rather, Jang focuses on Bureau 35, which he describes “as a government body for elite North Korea expats, as well as an undercover spy agency.” A distinctive feature of the bureau is that it is staffed with professionals and experts, including pharmacists. The External Liaison Department was also likely involved according to Jang. It plays a particularly important role because of the urgency of sanctions evasion. The department secures visas for expats and networks with foreign governments and other entities. As Jang puts it, “from routes, finances, and networking, the External Liaisons Department is the KWP’s favorite foreign institute. It is also their greatest weapon.”
Does any of this matter? In the end, it is hard to believe that this decision was ultimately taken by anyone other than Kim Jong-un. And it is clear that the regime has instituted what I call authoritarian checks-and-balances by multiplying redundant but stovepiped chains of command that serve as coup-proofing. Yet it might provide some insight into the regime that the most sensitive tasks are delegated not to military but party organs. Thoughts on this controversy are particularly welcome in the comments section below.