Kim Won Hong Out: Does it Matter?
The apparent demotion of Minister of State Security Kim Won Hong is one of the highest level purges of Kim Jong Un’s rule, and certainly deserves comment. But is it a sign of deeper instability, as Su Mi Terry recently opined for CNN? Or could it even show the opposite: that Kim Jong Un is capable of decapitating the highest-ranking officials at will, further cementing his dominance while deflecting blame for the regime’s excesses onto others?
I side with the latter view. There can be little question of Kim’s stature. The Ministry of State Security (MSS) or the State Security Department, with personnel estimated at 50,000—is effectively the regime secret police (not to be confused with the Ministry of People’s Security, which serves as the national police). The MSS has a wide-ranging writ with respect to internal security. Ken Gause summarizes in his 2012 report for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea: Coercion, Control, Surveillance and Punishment, a title that quite accurately summarizes the MSS’s role:
“It is charged with searching out anti-state criminals— those accused of anti-government and dissident activities, economic crimes, and disloyalty to the political leadership. It runs political prisons. It has counterintelligence and intelligence collection responsibilities. It monitors political attitudes and maintains surveillance of people who have returned from foreign areas. Department personnel escort high-ranking officials, guard national borders, and monitor international entry points.”
Gause’s org chart gives some sense of the range of activities, which combine international and domestic surveillance and bleed into functions as diverse as propagating directives from the top leadership to prosecution. S
That such an institution is pivotal to the regime goes without saying. This fact is visible in the positions Kim Won Hong held before his demotion: on the Politburo, the Central Military Commission, and the Party Central Committee among others (Michael Madden’s bio here; his broader take on the purge here). Kim’s resume includes time spent in a number of important organizations, including as deputy director of the KPA General Political Department as well as a political commissar of the VII and IX Army Corps. These organizations in turn are linked to the Military Security Command (MSC), another crucial security body that effectively oversees military officers and facilities; from 2004 to 2009 or 2010, Kim headed up the MSC. He has been identified by analysts as a pivotal figure in a group with a base of power in the KPA’s General Political Department and the task of surveilling elites.
But the news is surprising in part because Kim appeared to be a crucial factor in the succession, brought into important positions of trust at the end of the Kim Jong Il era. In April 2009, Kim was promoted to General. Following the succession, the acting head of the MSS U Tong Chuk, stepped aside and Kim Won Hong was chosen to head the MSS (the leadership of which had formally been empty in part because it appeared to fall under the direct purview of the top leadership). Kim was also frequently identified as part of the moving “on the sport guidance” court following both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, also a strong sign of close personal ties.
Needless to say, when information is scarce theories abound. The apparent list of formal particulars raised by the Organization and Guidance Department, which apparently launched the investigation of the MSS, included infringing on personal rights, acting outside of authority, and corruption. The Ministry of Unification suggested that the purge was the result of an overzealous approach and possible fears of popular backlash against the regime: “Kim Jong-un appears to have thrown Kim Won-hong under the bus when popular opinion started to turn against him in order to cultivate the image of a loving leader and to appease the people by shifting the blame to Kim Won-hong and the Ministry of State Security,” a South Korean official said.
This would be interesting on two counts: not only that there is expressed concern about public opinion but that the regime might be internally divided about it. CNN coverage cued off of recent interviews by Thae Yong-ho suggesting that criticism of the regime is mounting among lower ranks of officialdom. And of course, it is also possible that the highly-visible Thae Yong-ho was a more direct cause of the demotion: how did this guy manage to get away?
Yet it is worth outlining a simpler theory advanced by Hankyoreh and in line with political theories of authoritarian rule: that Kim Won Hong’s status as a key transition figure was a minus rather than a plus. There has been turnover in four of the five core military-security portfolios under Kim Jong Un: Director of the General Political Bureau of the military, Chief of the General Staff, Minister of the People's Armed Forces, and Minister of People’s Security. Only the MSS had not turned over.
We should take a deep breath: the purge, which appears to be accompanied by a handful of other executions, could reflect division within the regime, but perhaps only over tactics. And it could well result in an even tighter grip on the levers of power by Kim Jong Un, even if he chooses to exercise them with a lighter touch. If there is such a thing in the North Korean context.