It is very unusual to see an article devoted to the Organization and Guidance Department. Most of the pundits do not discuss it because they do not have the depth of understanding. It is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media. The Korean experts who have and continue to mentor me have always stressed the importance of this organization. Kim Jong-il was put in charge of this organization in 1973 and used it to consolidate his power for 21 years until the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994. As Kim Jong-il's health declined one of the key indicators we were looking for was if he would put one of his sons in charge of the OGD but as far as I can recall we never received any confirmation of who succeeded Kim Jong-il.
If Jang's purge/execution may very well be explained by a power struggle within the OGD. If that is the case and the OGD is not fully controlled by Kim Jong-un now then we are very, very likely to see further friction within the regime and it may not turn out well as it could very well lead to a rapid regime collapse. On the other hand, if Kim Jong-un does control the OGD then he is very likely to be able to consolidate power and possibly stabilize his rule and the regime. There are of course a lot of variables but if there is a center of gravity in the Kim Family Regime it is the OGD.
This is it: North Korea’s hidden power system
For Kim Jong Un to take control of the Organisation and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers’ Party (the OGD is the key to real, as opposed to symbolic, dictatorial power in North Korea), he would need OGD experience and alliances, and he has neither. There is no indication that he has begun to take the reins of the OGD; on the contrary, there are overwhelming signs that he has not.
The OGD in its present form was built by Kim Jong Il in order to usurp power from his father Kim Il Sung and his supporters. The entity was painstakingly modified to vest all possible chain-of-command powers in Kim Jong Il’s person. The “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il worked as an OGD departmental supervisor, then as OGD departmental director and finally, became the OGD party secretary. Kim Jong Il’s power grew with that of the OGD.
While the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Workers’ Party legitimized the hereditary succession of the Kim family through the cult of Kim Il Sung, the OGD routed policy and executive functions to Kim Jong Il.
In his son Kim Jong Un’s case, succession was authorized by the Politburo, and then his appointment to a role in the National Defence Committee. Both are merely symbolic structures, with no real powers or chain of command.
Even the transfer of symbolic power was coordinated by the OGD: all propaganda outlets nationwide remain under its grip. The OGD needs Kim Jong Un as the head of state, because the symbolic aspect of Kim family power is crucial in sustaining the legitimacy of the North Korean state.
The argument that generational power change has been taking place, and that Kim Jong Un is building his own power base, has depended on observations such as the fact that all of Kim Jong Il’s pallbearers have been purged. Yet not one of them was an OGD man.
Not only do Kim Jong Il’s OGD enforcers remain well and unharmed, they are even appearing with Kim Jong Un in public – North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun just reported the presence of Kim Kyong Ok and Hwang Byong So, two of the leading OGD figures.
After Kim Jong Il’s death, the OGD power structure remained untouched and unchanged, yet it was headless: Kim Jong Un did not inherit command of the OGD from Kim Jong Il.
Why didn’t Kim Jong Il give OGD control to his successor? Was this not possible or not accomplished? All we can say for now is that Kim Jong Il exercised all real powers as the OGD party secretary, with entities such as the military, political institutions and the secret police all answering to him through the OGD structure. This is the position that was not handed to Kim Jong Un by Kim Jong Il before his death.
The problem of Jang Song Thaek also remained – after Kim Jong Il handed over the OGD Administration Department to him in 2007, this remained the only enforceable power base outside the OGD chain of command. This tension manifested itself in the ‘factional’ battles to claim the “legacy of Kim Jong Il” and involved several purges.
This is the context of power struggles over clams, coal and everything else.
The toxic history of suspicion and violent feuds arising from the OGD’s activation of Jang Song Thaek side-branch restrictions and his subsequent revenges was encouraged by Kim Jong Il:
Jang Song Thaek’s brutal 1997 purge of Moon Sung Sul, general secretary of the Central KWP HQ; the suicide of Kim Yong Ryong, First Vice Director of the Ministry of State Security (the premier surveillance and purging arm of the OGD) as a result of a campaign led by Jang Song Thaek in 1998; OGD First Vice Director Ri Je Gang dying in mysterious circumstances in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2009; and after Kim Jong Il’s death, Vice Director Ryu Gyong of the Ministry of State Security being accused of espionage and executed; more recently, Wu Dong Cheuk, First Vice Director of the Ministry of State Security purged by Jang Song Thaek’s Ministry of People’s Security.
While the OGD restricted Jang Song Thaek through his side-branch designation, Jang Song Thaek himself was encouraged to prune elements of the OGD who were proving too powerful for Kim Jong Il’s liking.
With no one to authorize the checking of OGD powers as, for example, Kim Jong Il had done in 1997-2000 by giving Jang Song Thaek command over a nationwide Ministry of Social Security (the earlier incarnation of the Ministry of People’s Security) campaign of purges that hacked away at the surveillance rights of the OGD’s Ministry of State Security; or Kim Jong Il’s removal of the Administration Department from the OGD in 2007 to give control of it to Jang Song Thaek, there was no way Jang Song Thaek could survive without establishing his power base outside the OGD through personal diplomatic and economic initiatives.
This, in turn, further complicated the co-existence of Jang Song Thaek with the OGD.
After the OGD lost its military man (General Political Bureau head Ri Young Ho) to Jang Song Thaek’s Kim Jong Il-blessed proxy Choe Ryong Hae, who then turned against Jang Song Thaek, the balance of power was finally tipped against him.
The OGD power structure that has remained untouched and unchanged since Kim Jong Il’s death has reclaimed its head: the symbolic authority of the Kim cult, as manifested through Kim Jong Un’s ‘dictatorial’ power.
The structure of the Organisation and Guidance Department
When you analyse power in North Korea, the only proper way to see it is according to the OGD-enforced hierarchy. The current North Korean system was built to be a totalitarian state by Kim Jong Il’s OGD: all the procedures and processes of power work through the OGD.
This applies to diplomatic and business postings abroad, trading rights, powers of enforcement, and everything else.
How does the OGD work in practice? The OGD has five main spheres of influence:
1 – Monopoly over human resources.
I.e. the exclusive right to allocate positions among the elite. Most cadres are appointed by the Central Party Cadre Section, but any cadre of Director level and above in the central institutions is appointed by the OGD.
In the military, all generals above the level of regimental commander nationwide are directly appointed by the OGD.
Here is a breakdown of the OGD’s personnel appointment structure:
- Sections 1 and 2 for central cadres
- Section 3 for provincial cadres
- Section 4 for military appointments
- Section 5 for Guards Command (protection of Kim family)
- Section 6 for Ministry of State Security
- Section 7 for Ministry of People’s Security
- Section 8 for the judiciary
- Section 9 for government
- Section 11 for inter-Korean related personnel
In this way, every single appointment that matters is routed through the OGD.
2 – Absolute ‘guidance’ rights.
This is the right to intervene in every administrative task carried out at any level. All North Korean cadres and workers’ criticism sessions and political indoctrination meetings that take place daily or weekly is at the capillary level of the OGD’s ‘guidance’ chain of command.
The guidance section is divided into central and provincial concerns. The Central Party arm of the Guidance Department has unchallengeable authority over every institution and entity in Pyongyang. The provincial Party Guidance Department controls every provincial Party branch. Its powers are absolute.
For example, the power of OGD Section 13, in charge of military guidance, is such that the head of the KPA General Political Bureau may be summoned to grovel and be humiliated.
3 – Absolute ‘surveillance’ rights.
I.e. to monitor, purge and expel anyone. It is separated into central, provincial and institutional sections, and in this way, the rule by fear is both extremely compartmentalised and centralised.
In particular, Section 4 of the OGD ‘surveillance’ chain of command specializes in the highest-ranking cadres, wielding a guillotine that can come down on the head of any of them.
4 – Absolute policy sanction rights.
Every institution in North Korea had to route its proposals through the OGD ‘reporting section’ for an authorization from Kim Jong Il before it became valid.
The absolute centralization of policy proposals and policy approvals was emblematic of a totalitarian rule sanctioned by the sole authority of Kim Jong-il’s person.
5 – Protection of and catering for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Even the most trivial concerns pertaining to the ruling Kim, as well as procurement of all luxury goods and all bodyguard protection rights (Kim’s personal guards number one hundred thousand), is operated by the OGD.
North Korea’s systemic reality
Of the 25,000 North Korean exiles in South Korea, there are only eight with genuine and verified first-hand knowledge of or contact with North Korea’s hidden power hierarchy.
They lived under the direct surveillance and monitoring of Kim Jong Il’s OGD, and among them are some who were once vetted by the OGD and permitted to exercise sanctioned powers, or granted immunity from prosecution and purging by Kim Jong Il himself.
Of these eight, the highest-ranked, according to North Korea’s symbolic hierarchy, is former KWP international secretary Hwang Jang Yop. He died in 2010. Another is in the last stages of cancer.
The remaining six at New Focus are determined that the opacity that sustains North Korea’s totalitarian power structure should be penetrated by means of an interpretative framework rooted in North Korea’s political reality rather than through its outward manifestations. We are supported by cadres still within the North Korean system who, at great personal risk, maintain contact with their former colleagues.