Tomorrow, the 4th Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference will take place in Pyongyang. The main event may be the 15th, the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, but for younger politicians from the main ruling clans, it is this chance to move up the North Korean hierarchy that really matters.
The family was and still is the basic component of social life in Korea, and its perpetuation is intrinsic to patriarchal Confucianism. In a Confucian patriarchal family, the family is an entity more valuable than its individual members. The family group is also inseparably identified with the clan. In the time of the Three Kingdoms (Koguryo, Baekje and Shilla), each of the three had rigid social hierarchies in which a small, powerful ruling class was drawn from a small number of families.
Equally, to ensure the continuity of the North Korean system, key-members of certain clans hand favorable jobs to the children of former and current power players as a matter of course. This is done above all to continue the clan power structure. Elders play a pivotal role in oriental culture, and in North Korea they sit deep in the main organizational structures to act as patriarchs.
Therefore, while it is true that North Korea is still primarily in the hands of the Kim family, there are other families that also hold a large slice of the power, and this is something which is often forgotten.
Of course, the most important family is that of Kim Il Sung. People from this top clan are present in the leadership of a dizzying number of the most important political, economic and military structures. Kim Jong Eun, in spite of the fact that he’s only around 29, is already Supreme Commander of the Chosun People's Army and a 4-star general. His cousin Kim Il Cheol was formerly Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, and another cousin, Ri Yong Mu, is a current member of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the supreme decision making body under the North Korean constitution. Ri Myeong Su is the Minister of People’s Safety (and a distant uncle of Kim Jong Eun’s); Kim Kyung Hee, Kim Jong Eun’s aunt, is at the head of the Party Light Industry Department and is a 4-star general (in spite of what is said, she does have a military background, especially in nuclear issues), while her husband Jang Song Taek is among the most powerful Party men of all.
Elsewhere, Kang Dok Su, a former media boss, is Kim Jong Eun’s cousin, Kang Yeong Seop (a distant uncle) is the leader of the Christian Association of North Korea, Ri Myeong San (a cousin) is the Vice Minister of Foreign Trade, and Yang Hyeong Sop (a cousin of Kim Jong Il’s) is at the top of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North Korean parliament. Kim Il San, the former mayor of Kaesong, is also a cousin of Kim Jong Eun’s, while the family of Kim Ok, Kim Jong Il’s fourth and last wife, is also well placed at the head of educational institutions.
That’s not all; Kang Kwang Ju and Kim Yang Geon, also Kim Jong Il’s cousins, are directors of the United Front Department. Kim Seol Song, Kim Jong Eun’s half-sister, is high in the Party Munitions Industry Department.
But other families also have plenty of power. The second most important family is that of the aforementioned Jang Sung Taek. People who belong to this family occupy various positions in diverse fields. First, there is Jang himself. He’s vice chairman of the NDC and at the head of the Taepung Investment Bank. He’s also married to Kim Kyung Hee, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il, and deals with economic issues concerning the SEZ at Rasun. In the past he was director of the most important organization in North Korea: the Organization and Guidance Department. But it is not only Jang Sung Taek that wields power; his brothers, Jang Sung U, Jang Sung Hyeol, Jang Sung Kil, Jang Sung Seop and Jang Sung Ho, are all highly placed in the military, too.
There is also Kang Young Cheol, who since 2010 has been the DPRK Ambassador to Malaysia. He is a nephew of Jang Sung Taek’s (the late Jang Song U was his father). Jeon Yong Jin, the son-in-law of Jang Sung Taek, is the DPRK Ambassador to Cuba (he was previously Vice Chairman of the DPRK Foreign Culture Liaison Committee). Jeon Yong Jin’s father (the husband of Jang Song Ae, the sister of Jang Sung Taek) is Jeon Hee Jeong, a close advisor to the Kim family on foreign affairs. He notably advised Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and still does so for Kim Jong Eun. Jon Hee Jeong is the Director of the Foreign Affairs Department at the National Defense Commission and an officer in the Personal Secretariat of Kim Jong Eun. He’s a close associate of Jang Sung Taek’s.
Jang Sung Taek’s children also work (or, in one tragic case, worked) in the Party structure. His daughter Jang Kum Song studied abroad in France and worked for a time in the Organization and Guidance Department. However, because her parents wouldn’t accept her relationship with a foreigner, she committed suicide in Paris in 2006.
Another key family is that of Kim Yong Nam. Kim himself, 87 years old, is the country’s ceremonial head. His half-brother Kim Ki Nam is in the History Department of the Workers’ Party Central Committee. Kim Ki Nam’s wife is the director of the Academy of Social Sciences. His deceased brother Kim Du Nam was not only a member of the Party Central Military Commission but also President of Kumsusan Memorial Palace and chief of the Office of Military Officers in Kim Jong Il’s Personal Secretariat. This family has very close social and political ties to a number of the early pupils of Mangyongdae School, too, including General O Kuk Ryol. Kim Du Nam and O Kuk Ryol constituted in the past a huge faction in the North Korean military leadership.
The family of O Kuk Ryol deals mostly with military rather than economics issues. O Jum Song, his father, was a partisan with Kim Il Sung but was killed in the 30’s. One of his sons-in-law, So Ho Won, is the Vice Chairman of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. O Se Won, his son, is at the head of a foreign trading corporation. One daughter is a screenwriter for Korean Film Studio.
The family of Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the army Chief of Staff, is one of the newer big players. Ri Yong Ho is not only a close advisor to Kim Jong Eun but also a key military official who was on the funeral committee of Kim Jong Il. His father was Ri Pong Su, the North Korean Minister of Justice in the 60’s. Ri is also present in the structures of the most important military power bases. Ri Son Il, one of his sons, works as an official with a foreign trade company.
When taken in total, we can say that it is these families that really rule North Korea; in each case, they have members in all the main political, economical and military organizations. It is these families that we can expect to rally round Kim Jong Eun and continue the regime for the foreseeable future. Admittedly, in the longer term there is the possibility of a power struggle if any of them raise doubts about the current leadership of Kim Jong Eun, but for now all appears safe.
In my opinion, we need to see the North Korean regime as led in this way by a collective, or more precisely by a second and third generation collective leadership of families. This collective leadership is very different from the previous one, however, because in previous years only people belonging to the older generations worked at the top. The current deaths of elders is accelerating the movement of younger elite figures to key posts, and that is something to watch out for.
The older leaders are important, however, as in North Korea they play the role of ‘system guardians’. This means they surround and protect the younger generation. Such alliances are complicated by questions of leadership stability; nevertheless, I strongly hold the view that these major families will reinforce their presence in the main institutions and business entities going forward. These people are in multiple roles already and will continue to be given new ones. The previously mentioned Ri Son Il, Kim Seol Song, Kang Young Chol and Jang Kim Song may well be nominated to the SPA. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kim Jong Eun’s sister, Kim Yeo Jung, play a role in the next SPA session.
The real key question, however, is this; will the leadership be able to function via the existence of this two-three generation family structure, and what capacity for cooperation will there be between the younger elite figures after the death of the last of the first generation leaders?