The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — better known as North Korea — is run by an extremely narrow elite. Within a country of 25 million, perhaps two or three thousand people connected to the Kim family ruling dynasty actually make policy decisions. These people are bonded to the rulership mainly through blood and heredity. The North Korean elite has long since ossified around a small, impenetrable clique. Any pretension to democracy, Marxist “people’s democracy,” elections and so on have long since faded away.
Indeed, North Korea’s politics are best described as feudal and its leadership as a monarchy. All three of its rulers since 1945 come from the same family. The current leader — Kim Jong-un, who took his seat in 2011 — is the son of second leader Kim Jong-il (1994–2011), who was, in turn, the son of founder Kim Il-sung (1945–1994). The elite around Kim Il-sung were originally fellow guerilla fighters against Japanese colonialism in Korea between 1910 and 1945. These fighters passed down their access to power hereditarily. As a result, a feudal aristocracy arose over time around the monarchy. This hereditary framework was eventually cast over the entire country, with everyone ranked in a highly immobile caste system known as songbun.
The iconography of Marxism has survived, but North Korea is not really properly described as communist anymore. It is perhaps more accurate to see North Korea as a barony. The famous image of North Korea at night captures this well: the capital city is illuminated, while the rest of the country is lost in darkness and backwardness. The DPRK has retained the Orwellian surveillance apparatus of the old Stalinist states, and it has dabbled in black market criminality for decades. Like the Corleone family of the Godfather films, the Kims and their cronies wish to stay in power and enjoy the good life.
It’s useful to understand who makes up Kim’s inner circle. That said, it’s not their title or portfolio that contributes to their place in the hierarchy — it is instead their relationship to the leader.
North Korean Feudalism and the Challenge of Modernization
In North Korea, it is one’s proximity to the royal family that determines how high one rises in the system, not one’s education, personal achievements or ideological purity. Titles and membership in organizations or committees are added or removed and cross-pollinate with others in the system. Indeed, as one analyst put it, membership on any North Korean government or military committee may be a consequence of power, not a source of it.
Kim formally participates in most upper North Korean institutions. Through these relevant organs of the state and party, no decision contrary to Kim’s will be adopted, or likely even considered. Ordinary members of important-sounding institutions such as the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) or the cabinet can advise and recommend at best. But they have no real power to contradict the monarchy on policy. The long road of North Korean denuclearization illustrates this well. North Korean negotiators have repeatedly stopped debate in order to check in with Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un before moving forward.
As has been well documented, the people of North Korea are increasingly rich, entrepreneurial and aware of the outside world. The black market is massive and permitted, if not encouraged, by the state. Visitors to Pyongyang report a real excitement about business opportunities. Most North Koreans are now at least marginally aware that sanctions are hurting their ability to make money. According to Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of the highest-ranking defectors ever, elites now have room to voice dissatisfaction with government policies and decisions, something unheard of for most of North Korea’s history. Indeed, history suggests that elites are key to deposing dictators and autocrats. All of this, combined with pressure from abroad in the form of sanctions, military threats and other restrictions, presumably creates the necessary conditions for the elite splits and factionalization. Kim may be an absolute monarch, but it is unclear just how stable that position actually is. When Kim met US President Donald Trump in Singapore, he stayed just 48 hours, because, most analysts assumed, he feared a coup.
Kim’s dilemma, then, is to modernize the economy — to capture the riches and national power from marketization — without creating alternative power sources that might challenge him.
Kim’s first step was to purge several key military figures of the old (read: his father’s) regime. He is slowly deprioritizing the North Korean military — a massive drain on state resources, responsible for around a quarter of the GDP — and transferring greater control and resources to political and civilian sectors. Perhaps most importantly, Kim is not interfering with the bottom-up marketization that is feeding the North Korean people and creating life circumstances better than seen in more than a generation.
However, Kim is working within the confines of the North Korean bureaucratic leviathan, careful to avoid the kind of elite division that has led to social revolution elsewhere. He is elevating those who support his policies and heaping lavish rewards on the North Korean elite to keep them tied to him. Access to power and material goods — in particular, often-sanctioned luxury goods such as liquor or clothing — are the marks of success in North Korea, and the Kims allocate them for loyalty building.
Although titles, positions and responsibilities are in constant flux, there are some indicators of the people who Kim trusts most, and thus who will be crucial for genuine reform or denuclearization. These are inexact at best, as not even the highest echelons of North Korea’s government are immune from sudden purges and replacement. That said, some family, military leaders, senior leaders and statesmen have managed to hang on through various purges.
The Kim family employs a number of authoritarian tools to stay in power, and one of the most important is the deification of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, and the royal bloodline. Inspired by Stalinism, but taking it to an extreme in North Korea, the Kim family is permanently entrenched in the nation-state in a way many compare to a theocracy. Proximity to the godhead is proximity to power.
Despite the high-profile murder of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother last year, Kim family members have generally high survival rates and staying power. The most important to emerge publicly is Kim’s sister.
Kim Yo-jong: Almost never seen in public, Kim Yo-jong (the leader's youngest sister) burst onto the scene as the lead North Korean delegate at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Her proximity to the leader, and the fact that she is a high-ranking woman in an extremely patriarchal society, motivated some to compare her to Ivanka Trump.
It appears that like Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong was close to her father, Kim Jong-il, which may indicate she was being groomed for a leadership role in the North Korean state under the former leader. Under her brother’s rule, it seems she works in a director position in the WPK Propaganda and Agitation Department, which, among other things, is responsible for image maintenance and power projection of Kim Jong-un.
The younger Kim was educated abroad at the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school near Bern, Switzerland, the same as attended by the North Korean leader. Shortly after the execution of her uncle-by-marriage, Jang Song-thaek, Kim ascended to the political bureau of the WPK, replacing Jang’s wife, the only sister of Kim Jong-il.
A second group of North Korean power brokers to watch closely are those appointed directly by Kim Jong-un himself. Many of their predecessors, although certainly not all, were purged in the first half-decade of Kim’s rule. Unlike his father, Kim does not appear to prioritize the military above all other entities and is slowly shifting power back into the state and the ruling WPK, in order to reduce the military’s burden on the economy.
Ri Su-yong: Ri is a former minister of foreign affairs in North Korea and has represented North Korea at the UN mission in Geneva and as ambassador to Switzerland. He, along with many others with non-military backgrounds, was elevated to key decision-making positions in the North Korean power structure during the seventh congress of the WPK in late 2017.
Ri is well travelled and has met with dozens of world leaders. He was the first North Korean foreign minister to visit India in more than two decades. He has leveraged his experience and close relationship with the Kim family into a leading position at the WPK International Affairs Department and the Politburo.
Thae Yong-ho speaks highly of Ri in his recently published memoirs, characterizing him as a confident, capable and oftentimes gutsy official who speaks in favour of foreign engagement. Thae writes that Ri, with an eye toward reform, directed personnel changes within North Korea’s foreign service to better support his goal of international engagement. Thae adds that Ri looked after Kim Jong-un and his younger sister Kim Yo-jong while they were at school in Switzerland and likened him to a foster father.
Ri is a foreign diplomat, a role played by those who are often among their society’s most educated members (alongside a fast-growing number of international businesspeople) and, by dint of their profession, most exposed to the outside world and different ideas. They are also among the most powerful people within the North Korean system.
Kim Su-gil: Elevated to director of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Political Department just days before the Singapore summit this past June, Kim Su-gil also played a role in the ouster of Jang Song-thaek. Kim is the top representative of the WPK in the military, and leads the political and ideological indoctrination of all members of the KPA, reinforcing the state’s ultimate control over the military. Kim Su-gil accompanies Kim Jong-un on various on-the-spot guidance tours (the number of times seen on these tours is a useful proxy indicator for one’s relative standing).
Kim’s propaganda efforts manifest in a number of cultural institutions in North Korea, such as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War (Korean War) museum, and he even directs foreign propaganda efforts, targeting South Korea and a worldwide audience through the internet.
No Kwang-chol: No is the minister of the People’s Armed Forces, a role most akin to a defence minister. He and Kim Su-gil were two of the three senior-most officials promoted directly before Kim left North Korea to meet Trump in Singapore. It is No that secures, allocates and finances resources to a North Korean army some 1.2 million in size. Kim Jong-un has made no secret of his desire to grow the economy and reassert party control of the military, and any shifts away from the military state of his father have to be navigated with the help of No Kwang-chol.
Ri Yong-gil: Ri Yong-gil is the last of the three top officials appointed prior to the Singapore Summit, replacing Ri Myong-su, whom he used to work under. Ri heads the KPA general staff, an ostensibly non-political unit responsible for managing, directing and educating North Korea’s large air, land and sea forces. Ri also devises military strategy and issues orders to these units and has more recently expanded into signals intelligence collection, an area historically reserved for the General Reconnaissance Bureau headed by Kim Yong-chol (described below). Kim Jong-un, the supreme commander of the KPA, uses the general staff to issue orders and guidance to all branches of the KPA.
Along with Kim Su-gil at the General Political Department, Ri has close ties to the North’s nascent market economy. The KPA general staff owns and operates several textile and consumer goods factories, in which it presumably operates much like a recognizably capitalist entity. State enterprises like these can set their own prices, allocate resources as they see fit (including hiring and firing employees) and are involved in foreign trade, generating precious foreign currency for the DPRK regime.
Choe Ryong-hae: Choe Ryong-hae is the director of the WPK Organization Guidance Department (OGD) and, like most North Korean officials, holds a slew of other titles, such as member of the WPK Political Bureau standing committee, the WPK Central Committee and the WPK Central Military Commission.
Choe is the first director of the OGD who is not a member of the Kim family — the position was first held by Kim Jong-il and then briefly by Kim Jong-un — indicating his significant power as an individual. Choe also served as the director of the KPA’s General Political Department, the political wing of the army, going so far as to audit and inspect the entire department.
Choe grew up in the Kim family inner circle and is well connected to the rich and powerful, having personally known Kim Il-sung. He was instrumental in consolidating support for Kim Jong-il during the 1970s and 1980s as Kim worked to push his siblings and high-ranking elites out of the way in order for him to succeed his father. Choe’s second son is reportedly married to Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, who is described above.
An economics graduate, Choe became a four-star general in September 2010, and a vice-marshal two years later, when Kim Jong-un was elevating political actors to heights previously reserved only for military officials.
As mentioned here and elsewhere, Kim has made great strides toward realizing economic growth and shifting resources and power away from the military behemoth. However, Kim has adroitly moved slowly on this, careful not to disrupt extant patronage networks, while reassuring military leaders. For example, Kim’s trademark byungjin policy, most closely translated as “parallel development” of the economy and nuclear weapons, was seen by many as a necessary step toward deprioritizing the military. There is less need for a massive standing army with a nuclear deterrent. But the KPA remains an essential power bloc in North Korea, and its leaders will remain important to Kim’s decision-making process for the foreseeable future.
Kim Yong-chol: Kim is a military general and a former head of the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, the foremost intelligence-gathering organization in the country. A career military man, he is widely suspected of being the mastermind behind the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.
Earlier this year, Kim was dispatched to New York City in an effort to revive the then-cancelled June 12 summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un. He was the most powerful DPRK official to visit the United States since Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok visited the White House in October 2000, two weeks before Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang that same month.
Jo Kyong-chul: Jo Kyong-chul leads the Military Security Command (MSC), one of the most powerful entities in North Korea, and is one of the highest-ranking officials not appointed directly by Kim Jong-un. Jo leads a department of some 10,000 who monitor and surveil the North Korean elite military and government officials. Their mission is to identify reactionary elements and anti-party activities or thoughts. Kim Jong-un’s purges in the first few years of his reign likely stemmed partially or totally from evidence collected by Jo’s department. In addition, the MSC is a secret service of sorts for Kim Jong-un.
Jo played an essential role in rallying KPA and DPRK officials behind Kim Jong-un, and in helping to identify, purge and/or kill perceived threats to the Kim dynasty. Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s uncle by marriage and number two to Kim Jong-il, was purged and executed in no small part thanks to Jo’s influence.
These are individuals who have survived three iterations of the Kim family rule, typically by legacy connections to the very first years of the North Korean state or to Kim Il-sung’s guerilla unit fighting imperial Japan in the 1930s.
Pak Pong-ju: Pak Pong-ju is one of five members of the WPK Politburo’s Presidium, arguably the most important organization outside the Kim family. On paper, Pak is in charge of the civilian economy, which was covered extensively in this space previously. He has the unenviable job of finding solutions to North Korea’s wretched economy, navigating around the growing private sector and market forces.
Pak is arguably one of the most reform-minded of Kim’s inner circle. As far back as 2002, He personally oversaw experiments in agriculture, land rights and enterprise reform. For example, he personally carved out autonomy for state enterprises, enabling them to set their own prices, independently allocate resources and pocket returns after the state takes their cut. This policy directly contributed to the market economy, generating investment and investor income in areas where there was none previously.
Choe Yong-rim: Choe Yong-rim is the honorary vice president of the Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium and a former secretary general of its presidium. He has served in a number of key positions throughout the government. Like Choe Ryong-hae, Choe Yong-rim’s ties to the Kim family go back decades, and his daughter, Choe Son-hui, is similarly entrenched in the bureaucracy. She has been a key interpreter for North Korean officials during past nuclear and multilateral talks, including the track 1.5 meeting in Norway in the first half of 2017, representing the Trump administration’s initial foray into discussions with North Korea.
What Does Ever-changing Entourage Mean for Global Governance?
The difficulty in building a list of Kim's inner circle is that titles and positions change rapidly in the DPRK. Although Kim Jong-un oversaw purges and executions at a rapid pace during his first few years, many officials removed from their positions remain in the inner circle and in good health. Moreover, it is often the case that an influential figure will be suddenly removed, not to be seen in public for weeks, if not years, only to just as suddenly reappear, standing next to Kim Jong-un during an on-the-spot guidance tour. This certainly could be a purposeful tactic meant to keep the outside world guessing about the circle that runs the country, below Kim himself.
The fluidity in which elites rise, flow or move laterally should be a clear indicator that Kim Jong-un is the one controlling Pyongyang. It is not an oligarchy like the Soviet Union following destalinization. The enrichment of North Korea over seven years of Kim Jong-un’s rule does not seem to have bred the elite resistance discussed earlier. Indeed, Kim seems firmly in charge — purges have slowed, and he felt comfortable enough to visit Singapore, far from home. As best we can tell, Kim is now entrenched; the transition period from his father’s reign is over. It will be on his terms — not the terms of his ever-changing inner circle — that the current peace talks deliver tangible results or devolve back into fire and fury.