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The Peninsula

Career Paths to the North Korean Politburo Part 2: Toward Military-Civilian Fusion?

Published September 13, 2021
Category: North Korea

In a previous post, we provided data on the shifting composition of the Politburo, based on a classification of personnel into six different career paths: military, diplomatic, party, state, economic and provincial. We showed that since the failed Hanoi summit of 2018, the share of military personnel has returned to levels not seen since the late Kim Jong Il years. In this post, we look more closely at those developments, particularly from 2016 forward.

The expansion of the Politburo in 2016-18 appeared to bring in provincial representatives and those with economic career tracks. While a consideration of particular promotions confirms our coding, a closer examination of these figures also suggests that that a number were deeply intertwined with the military-industrial complex. Kim Phyong-hae is exemplary. He worked in North Pyongan from 1989 to 2010, moving from Secretary of Organization in the WPK Pyongyang City Committee in 1989, to Secretary of North Pyongan Provincial People’s Committee in 1993, and on to Chief Secretary of North Pyongan WPK Provincial Committee and Chairman of North Pyongan Provincial People’s Committee in 1997. After 2010, he was elevated to director of he WPK Cadres Department and viewed as an heir to Thae Jong-su, who was the Chief Secretary of South Hamgyong WPK Provincial Committee. These cadres had advanced on the basis of decades-long provincial level work experience and provided useful examples of party cadre that had been attentive to people’s economic needs.

The inclusion of figures from North and South Pyongan were also a give-away, however, because those provinces house many major munitions facilities, including the nuclear research center and Tongchang-ri missile launch and Kangson uranium enhancement sites. Figures such as Kim Phyong-hae may have been promoted because of their contribution to local economic development, and he was touted as a kind of model cadre. But Ri Man-geun and Pak Thae-seung were clearly promoted because of their contribution to the country’s military program. Ri Man-geun had been working as Chief Secretary of the North Pyongan WPK Committee since 2010 but was elevated to the director of the Munitions Industry Department in 2016 to take charge of the oversight of the country’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. It was reported that Ri supervised renovations and technological upgrades of multiple munition facilities when he was in North Pyongan. Similarly, Pak Thae-song was the Chief Secretary of South Pyongan WPK Provincial Committee in 2014-2016 and Chairman of Provincial People’s Committee in 2016-2017, but is also reported to have supervised renovations and industrial upgrades of facilities like the January 18th Machine Factory, which manufactures Scud missile engines.

As we showed in our last post, 2016-2018 was the period in which the share of those with economic career tracks saw a significant increase, going from 4% (1/24) in 2012 to 18% (4/22) in 2016 and peaking at 25% (5/20) in 2018. O Su-young and An Song-su provide examples. O Su-yong had long worked in state-owned production units, rising from vice minister overseeing the metal and machine-building industry, through a position as minister of the electronic industry for a decade from 2009 and ultimately chairing the State Budget Commission and becoming director of the party’s Department of Economic Affairs in April 2019; he is frequently seen with Kim Jong-un on his on-the-spot guidance tours of economic units. A particularly interesting appointment following a similar industry career is An Jong-su, who had solid knowledge of light industry, including textiles and clothing, and may have been brought into the Politburo to strategize how to circumvent sanctions; as we have shown elsewhere, light industry products managed to expand exports prior to the sanctions.

Yet just as provincial officials are necessarily tangled up in the military-industrial complex, so those coming out of an apparently economic career path can be as well. Thae Jong-su, who was an expert in heavy chemical industry, was later re-instated as minister overseeing the munitions industry as the country accelerated missile and nuclear development in 2017.

The third major shakeup of the Politburo under Kim Jong-un happened in 2019-2020, when as many as one third of Politburo members were replaced. Among the nine new members, four came from the military and security apparatus, including Ri Byungchol, Kim Soo-gil and Jong Kyong-taek and Pak Jongchon. In addition to providing evidence on the centrality of the country’s weapons programs, these appointments include key figures from the security apparatus as well.

As one of the “four heros” of North Korean nuclear-missile development–and probably father-in-law to Kim Jong-un–Ri rose up through the Central Military Commission and became commander of the air force in 2014. Pak Jong-chon, head of the KPA Artillery Command for years, was promoted to Vice Chief and then Chief of the KPA General Staff in 2014 and 2019 respectively. It was revealed that these two figures were main players in the country’s accelerated nuclear and missile and were given with the rank of Marshals of the KPA in October 2020, only two of the seven which have held this rank exclusive of the three members of the Kim dynasty itself.

Two other military elites promoted in April 2019–Kim Soo-gil and Jong Kyong-taek—demonstrate the continuing importance of internal security. Kim had been the chief of General Political Department of KPA and a member of Central Military Commission in 2018-2021 and Jong was promoted to Minister of State Security in November 2017. Although Kim’s promotion was predictable; the chief of the General Political Department is one of the country’s top three military positions and a ticket to the Politburo. Jong’s promotion as Minister of State Security in April 2019, one month after the collapse of the Hanoi Summit, was somewhat more surprising as he had come up through the ministry through work on political control and counterintelligence. Ri Yong-gil held military positions as Minister of People’s Armed Forces and Chief of the General Staff of the KPA, but at the time of of his promotion to the Politburo he was Minister of Social Security; according to a recent report the Ministry of Social Security is receiving training from China’s Ministry of Public Security and is clearly focused on internal security issues.

The final reshuffling of the Politburo occurred in January of this year and continues to the present; we take up some of those developments in the next post. The aftermath of the 8th Party Congress was a bloodbath for the incumbent economic team as Kim Jong-un sought to deflect blame for the regime’s policy failures. Only two individuals with economic career paths were retained: O Su-yong and Kim Tok-hun. By contrast, major military veterans, such as Pak Jong-chun (Chief of the General Staff), Jong Kyong-taek (Ministry of State Security), Ri Pyong-chol (vice-chairman of the Party Central Military Commission) and Kim Yong-chol (director of the United Front Department) remain unscathed. Moreover, the leadership brought in a new crop of younger military personnel–O Il-jong, Kwon Yong-jin, Kim Jong-gwan and Ri Yong-gil—with backgrounds across the military establishment but including both economic and domestic security roles.

Despite Kim Jong-un’s open acknowledgement of economic shortcomings at the Party Congress, the share of those coming out of economic career tracks shrank from its its peak of 25% (5/20) in 2018 to 11% (2/19) this year. But the survivors demonstrate the increasing fusion of military and civilian roles. Kim Jong-gwan clearly had an economic career track, managing state-owned enterprises, assuming the positions of Vice Premier in 2014, chairman of the State Budget Commission August 2020 and ultimately Premier and a member of the Politburo standing committee. But Choe Sang-gon (although subsequently dismissed) came out of the unusual route of serving as director of the party’s Science and Education Department in 2015-2016, president of Kim Il-sung University and Minister of Higher Education in 2019-2020. , a sign of aspirations to follow the Chinese model of military-industrial fusion. Choe’s background in science and technology signals the same ambitions.

These appointments, which straddle the economic-military divided, are in line with contemporaneous policy statements and the pursuit of a strategy that looks something like China’s strategy of military-civilian fusion. This can be seen, for example, in the report coming out of the Party Congress, but also in other sources. The 8th Party Congress report particularly mentioned the ambition to “found the nuclear power industry”: to construct light-water reactors that would integrate technologies initiated for military reasons more firmly into domestic power production for civilian use.  In his 2019 New Year’s Speech, Kim Jong-un urged the munitions industry to not only enhance national defense capacity, but also “actively support economic construction”. In February 2020, Kim reiterated the same message toward the military, urging them to “take the responsibility of both national defense and social construction.”

Next time, we consider the ongoing evidence of personalism in the promotion of individuals with little prior public profile and evidence of ongoing churn in the Politburo. We close with some possible interpretations, incuding the complex role that the military industrial complex has come to play in the North Korean political economy.

Liuya Zhang is a PhD student in Political Science department of Ohio State University. She received her bachelor’s degree of Arts from Fudan University and master’s degree of International Studies from Seoul National University and master’s degree of International Affairs from UC San Diego. Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from WikiMedia Commons.

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