Kim Jong Il’s “Inner Circle Politics”
The workings of North Korea’s inner circle have long remained a mystery to foreign analysts. Due to the regime’s tight security controls and suppression of free speech, observers have little to go on when prognosticating the North’s future policy moves. Even attempts to penetrate the North’s inner sanctum via espionage have, for the most part, failed. Former Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg once called North Korea the greatest intelligence failure in American history.
What little we do know about Kim Jong Il’s inner circle is pieced together from high-level defector testimonies and other rare sources of information intelligence officials happen to stumble upon. The inner circle is often compared to the aristocracy in the monarchies of the past. Members act with a level of impunity unimaginable to normal citizens and are showered with economic and political benefits.
In order to join the elite, one must have an “impeccable” family background. In North Korea, one is judged by the actions of one’s ancestors. Having a relative who was well off or who cooperated with the South is enough to destroy one’s career, regardless of abilities. One must also demonstrate unfailing loyalty to the regime and have the right connections. Relatives of war heroes and partisans who fought the Japanese with Kim Il Sung are favored over all others. But even this is not enough to join the crème-de-la-crème of North Korean society. Donga Ilbo reports on Kim’s selection method:
Kim invites outstanding North Korean elites, who draw his attention, to official events or feasts to see their personalities and abilities after conducting multi-dimensional verification on them beforehand.
There is only one chance to pass the test. Failure on the first try means death to one’s career.
The inner-circle, though an informal, loose collection of aides and loyalists, is North Korea’s main policy making organ. In fact, notes Donga Ilbo, so dominant is the inner circles grip on power that other rubberstamp organs rarely even need to convene and pretend to do business:
The Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, which is the highest official governing body in the party, has not had a single session since 1980 and the Central Committee Plenary Meeting of the Workers’ Party was last convened in 1993 when the deceased North Korean leader Kim Il Sung was still alive