They are the world's most fearsome bureaucrats.
One is a cyber warfare expert and counterfeiter described by one expert as the "North Korean version of Dick Cheney." Another is the former chairman of the country's youth soccer and taekwondo associations. One is a thuggish enforcer, one is a mild-mannered consensus builder. They are the old, stern-faced men lurking in the background of propaganda photos while Kim Jong-un grins, points, and smokes cigarettes.
They helped Kim take over the regime, and they may ultimately be the people who rule for years to come.
Plenty of scrutiny has recently been focused on Kim, the country's Supreme Leader, who was conspicuously missing from public view for more than five weeks before seemingly reappearing in state-run media on Monday. Whether Kim was seriously ill, recovering from ankle surgery, being held captive, or merely spending time in the "hearts and minds of 25 million proud North Koreans," as the rumors and jokes suggested, the regime has appeared to withstand his absence.
Coup speculation was rampant during Kim's time in the shadows. Former top propaganda official Jang Jin-sung told VICE News that the North Korean government is largely controlled by men from the country's Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), a shadowy agency formerly headed by Kim Jong-il. Jang has argued that OGD bureaucrats cemented their grip on power late last year by executing Kim's influential uncle, Jang Song-thaek.
There is no consensus among North Korea experts about who actually runs the country. Some believe Kim Jong-un still has absolute control. Others suggest influential aides and family members are able to manipulate him however they please. Nobody outside of a few Pyongyang elites can say for certain, and they don't grant a whole lot of interviews.
But whether Kim is a mighty despot or a mere puppet, he is undoubtedly surrounded by an entourage of cunning bureaucrats, powerful generals, and reclusive siblings who help set his agenda, shape his policies, and ensure that the day-to-day business of the country runs as smoothly as it can in the Hermit Kingdom.
'We think that they're evil people just waiting to kill somebody. Well, they are — but there's a lot of administrative work that goes into the regime.'
The little that is known about Kim Jong-un's innermost circle comes from South Korean intelligence reports and firsthand accounts from defectors and diplomats. Academics, think tank analysts, and special consultants — who sell their North Korea expertise to the government or businesses — obsessively research how the North Korean government and economy function, offering insights about who wields influence and power.
One of the leading North Korea wonks is Michael Madden, a consultant and author who meticulously tracks state propaganda and other literature to compile annotated biographies about the ruling elites, which he publishes on his site North Korea Leadership Watch.
"I haven't gotten two weeks off since Kim Jong-il died," Madden told VICE News during an interview from Boston. He said that while many of the top leaders were once highly reclusive, they have been seen in public more often since Kim Jong-un assumed power. "We used to get a picture of Kim Jong-il with six very stern-looking people, and we had to figure out, 'Okay, what does he do?' Now they tell us."
Jang Jin-sung and other former top North Korean officials — including the late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking defector to date — have argued that the OGD wields immense power over nearly ever aspect of the North Korean government, including the military. Madden compared the OGD to the White House executive office staff, the group of senior aides and officials responsible for briefing and advising the President of the United States.
Analysts describe the OGD as part secret police, part military junta, and part old boys club. The last men standing after years of purges, they have access to the personnel files on millions of members of the Korean Workers Party. They also helped usher Kim Jong-un into power after the death of his father. Madden said an OGD job title is used as "cover" for people with other key roles in the country's leadership.
"It's a twisted priesthood of the Worker's Party of Korea," Madden said. "The OGD is a a formal department that does things. And then the OGD is also used as a cover by a number of different people in North Korea, almost all of whom work for the Kim family."
These are some of the men and women who — depending on who you talk to — advise Kim, control Kim, or outright run things in North Korea.
Perhaps the most intriguing development, and one of the few real, verifiable pieces of news to emerge from North Korea during Kim's public absence was the surprise arrival of a North Korean delegation in South Korea for the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Asian Games on October 4. Leading the officials — and seemingly speaking in place of the Supreme Leader — was Hwang Pyong-so, a 68-year-old official who spent nearly his entire political career in the OGD.
Hwang arrived on just one day's notice to the games, wearing a military dress uniform, and officially expressed a desire "to continue inter-Korean dialogue," according to the South's Ministry of National Unification. It had been a busy month for Hwang. Earlier he was appointed Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) at a Supreme People's Assembly meeting where Kim conspicuously failed to appear.
Victor Cha, the former director for Asian affairs in the White House's National Security Council and the director of the Asian Studies program at Georgetown University, says the NDC is a key political and military body in North Korea, and that Hwang still doubles as a first deputy director of the OGD.
"A lot of the NDC people have sort of been moved out," Cha said. "Hwang is one of the two that still are in their positions. These guys have been replaced and some have been fired as part of whatever leadership transition they were conducting. This guy has been able to survive all that."
According to Madden, Hwang is "essentially the civilian supervisor of the military," whose job it is to "keep an eye on the generals and make sure they don't try a coup." He is married and has adult children who work in the central party and foreign trade, and Madden says he's quite friendly by North Korean standards.
"He's a nice guy," Madden said. "I've talked to people who know him and that's the general consensus. People say he's inclined to try solving problems by consensus. You can't shoot everybody in North Korea, but there are some guys who are more itchy on the trigger finger than others. He's not."
In a detailed analysis of Hwang's visit to South Korea, Jang, the former North Korean propaganda official, observed that Hwang traveled with bodyguards, once a privilege reserved only for the Supreme Leader, and said his demeanor was "consistently smiles and modesty," bordering on a "charm offensive." To Jang, the visit was yet another sign that the OGD has cemented control over the regime.
"Even though Kim Jong-un attaches his signature to policy proposals as his father did, which is what must be done to sustain a 'Supreme Leader justified' system," Jang wrote, "the power elite need to finalize their deliberations on a proposal before delivering it to Kim Jong-un for his ratification to make it into an irreversible decision. In a sharp reversal of roles, Kim is now the 'rubber stamp.'"
Several experts interviewed by VICE News disputed Jang's characterization of the extent of the OGD's power, but they also described a similar rubber-stamp arrangement between the leader and his aides. By filtering information and only feeding Kim Jong-un what he wants to hear, top advisers can subtly pull the strings.
"In my view, it makes more sense to argue that he is in charge," said one former US intelligence official specializing in North Korea who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity. "But like his father or maybe more so, he does listen to advice. He makes final decisions, but if you know how to formulate your recommendation to him correctly, you can get a yes."
Accompanying Hwang to South Korea was 64-year-old Choe Ryong-hae. According to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) titled "Kim Jong-un's New Entourage," Choe is a second-generation Pyongyang elite whose father, Choe Hyon, was a key associate of Kim Jong-un's revered grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Choe is officially the Secretary for Workers' Organizations in the Korean Workers Party, and he has the distinction of being the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit China, the regime's closest ally, during a trip to Beijing in May 2013. According to CSIS, Choe has a reputation as a "military hardliner who has played a large role in the recent leadership changes."
"I've heard this theory about the OGD playing such a big role most often from the European ambassadors stationed in Pyongyang," said Andy Lim, the author of the CSIS report. "I can't say which I've heard from, but from their impression they see this OGD group as playing a large role."
According to Madden, Choe attended top schools in Pyongyang and got a cushy job with the party after graduation. He was appointed director of cultural exchange programs for the Kim Il-sung Youth League, and traveled to China, Russia, Japan, Libya, and Greece. Around 1990, he was appointed chairman of the country's youth soccer and taekwando associations, which eventually merged. Madden said Choe lost the job in 1998 officially for health reasons, but that the actual reason involved his involvement in unsanctioned sales of scrap metal to China.
Choe later cultivated an alliance with Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un's executed uncle. Choe survived Jang's purge last December, though Madden reports that Choe was interrogated and had his offices searched in February 2014. He resurfaced three weeks later, accompanying Kim Jong-un at a public appearance at an Air Force base.
Ken Gause, director of the international affairs group at CNA Corporation, a non-profit think tank based in Arlington, Virginia, is an expert on the leadership of "hard-target countries" such as North Korea, Russia, and Iran. He suggested there was a reason Choe was Hwang's sidekick in Seoul.
"I tend to think of him more as a yes man and a person willing to carry out orders than as a person bent on building his own power base," Gause said. "He's somebody who very much protects his own self-interest within in the regime, which you could say is true about most people at the senior levels of the regime."
To consolidate power and secure succession after the death of Kim Jong-il, his son and his cadre purged a significant number of top party officials, a deadly dance known as "the Pyongyang shuffle." Lim called it "a seemingly poor Machiavellian joke that is used to demonstrate how quickly people can fall from grace."
The North Korean army chief has been switched out three times in a span of 15 months. There have been five ministers of defense. And roughly half of the top 218 military and administrative officials have lost their jobs and/or their lives, according to Lim and reports citing South Korean intelligence.
Kim Kyong-ok may be the man leading the Pyongyang shuffle. According to Madden's research, Kim Kyong-ok first appeared as a senior deputy director of the OGD in the mid-2000s, when Kim Jong-il was still alive. He appeared in public more frequently after Kim Jong-il suffered a pair of strokes, and eventually became Kim Jong-un's "chief political enforcer," an assessment seconded by Gause. In propaganda photos he is tall, grim-faced, and imposing despite his advanced age.
"He's a thug, there's no way getting around it," Madden said.
Madden also pointed out that Kim Jong-un's first real position in North Korean government after he completed his schooling in Switzerland was working in the OGD.
"Kim Jong-un's formative years were in the OGD," Madden said. "When we say they're controlling him, of course they are — he's one of them. This is where he made his bones. These are his people that he's close to."
Kim Kyong-ok is said to work closely with Choe Ryong-hae, and was reportedly another key figure in the execution of Jang Song-taek. He was spotted in March of 2014 accompanying Kim Jong-un to cast a ballot for the 13th Supreme People's Assembly, where the young dictator ran unopposed for the position of Supreme Leader.
Joe Bermudez, publisher of KPA Journal, a site that tracks ballistic missile development, intelligence operations, and other aspects of the North Korean military, told VICE News that the OGD "has a lot of influence when it comes to military leadership and watching the military," and that senior aides such as Kim Kyong-ok command respect based both on their ages relative to Kim Jong-un, and their longstanding alliances within the bureaucracy.
"The generational difference is very important and probably has not been given enough play in the general media," Bermudez said. "They obviously respect the elder people around them, not only because of age, but also because of culture, and more importantly because of the power they actually do wield."
Bermudez explained that the upper echelons of the North Korean leadership maintain "patronage networks" — informal, symbiotic relationships with people lower down the totem pole in institutions such as the secret police or military. He said important decisions — like the Jang Song-thaek execution — are often made by consensus among the leaders of these patronage systems. Members of the OGD are usually in charge of key personnel appointments, allowing them to build deep patronage systems and solidify their power base.
"We think that they're evil people just waiting to kill somebody," Bermudez said. "They are — but there's a lot of administrative work that goes into the regime."
The mystery woman of the hermit kingdom is Kim Jong-un's 27-year-old little sister. Her existence was once disputed, but she has tiptoed into the limelight in recent months, drawing speculation that she might be next in line for the North Korean dictatorship.
She is Kim Jong-il's youngest daughter, and unlike other siblings in the Kim family, she has the same mother as Kim Jong-un. She attended elementary school in Berne, Switzerland with her brother, living in the North Korean embassy there. She returned to North Korea after finishing sixth grade and then fell off the radar. She reappeared around 2008 working as an aide for her father. According to Madden, she has become a top aide for Kim Jong-un, "tasked with managing his public events, itineraries, and logistical needs."
A Seoul-based think-tank run by North Korean defectors recently reported that Kim Yo-jong was tasked with taking care of official government business during her brother's absence. Cha, the former director for Asian affairs in the White House's National Security Council, told VICE News that it's a bad sign if the North Korean elites have been forced to replace Kim Jong-un with his sister as figurehead, since the men are traditionally leaders in North Korea.
"She's clearly been gerrymandered late in the process to start playing a role," Cha said. "If she's playing a role, to me that's not good news, that's a sign that something is terribly wrong inside the system."
According to Madden, she is also a member of the OGD who learned under the tutelage of her father, Kim Jong-il.
Gause, however, suggests it's actually the Supreme Leader's older half-sister, Kim Sul-song, who is the more influential adviser within the Kim family. She is thought to be in her late 30s, and was the only daughter of Kim Jong-il who was officially recognized as legitimate by patriarch Kim Il-sung. Like her half-siblings, she has studied in Europe, and she is reportedly fluent in French, Russian, and English. According to Gause, she is allied with the enforcer Kim Kyong-ok.
"She plays a major role behind the scenes," Gause said of Kim Sul-song. "She's a shadowy figure in the background providing advice on politics within the high command."
There are other members of the government who are many years the senior of the young Kims who hold serious sway over the military and other key institutions. Madden singled out a reclusive 83-year-old general named O Kuk-ryol, a man he described as "the North Korean version of Dick Cheney" due to his perceived influence and receding hairline. He reportedly speaks fluent Chinese, English, and Russian; created the country's cyber warfare division; and now oversees military intelligence and strategy.
"This is a very powerful guy," Madden said. "Nothing has happened in the North Korean military in the last year or two that didn't have his expressed authorization."
O was also fingered as a key figure in the North Korean production of high-quality counterfeit $100 bills known as "supernotes." A 2009 report from the Washington Times cited "a foreign-government report" and interviews with US intelligence officials as saying O and his family members were "in charge" of the counterfeiting.
Gause told VICE News that O has indeed been linked to hard currency production, and also said he "has his fingers on a lot of the weaponry within the country," including a role overseeing the Praetorian Guard, Kim Jong-un's personal security detail.
"The O family is seen as the most trusted family other than the Kim family [in North Korea], and he is the Godfather of that family," Gause said. "He oversees one of the most powerful patronage systems in the armed forces."
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According to Gause, there are rival factions within OGD vying for influence over Kim Jong-un. He believes that, while the group is undoubtedly influential, "to think if it as a unified entity with a common brain thinking in one direction oversimplifies the matter."
"Kim Jong-un is the ultimate decision maker," Gause said. "While he needs some assistance in helping set the table for decisions, ultimately those decisions are his and his alone to make, and no one — including the OGD — is going to get in the way of making those decisions without paying a heavy political price."
Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based Russian scholar who specializes in North Korea and attended Kim Il-Sung University in the 1980s, told VICE News that the highest-ranking officials have every reason to cling to power for as long as possible. Not only do they currently enjoy access to the finest living accommodations, food, alcohol, and other privileges, they would likely face execution or charges at the Hague if the regime were to crumble.
"If the system collapses, the people around Kim Jong-un, the immediate family and maybe a few dozen people around them will disappear," Lankov says. "Some will probably go to prison and some will be lynched. The North Korean collapse will be a very messy and bloody business."
Lankov has argued that no matter what the long-term scenario is for North Korea — whether it is absorbed into South Korea, propped up by China, or experiences some other bloodless reformation — many of the ruling elites will keep their jobs. Lankov pointed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and noted that many former satellite regimes are now ruled by former communist party officials.
"They don't have replacements," Lankov said. "It's a problem, especially in repressive regimes. The Eastern European countries that were more repressive are where the former communists are leaders. Because they did not allow any kind of alternatives to appear."
Unlike the other North Korea experts, Lankov is of the opinion that Kim Jong-un is still in charge of the regime, no matter how influential or powerful his subordinates may seem. As evidence, he cites the wisdom — or lack thereof — of what he does.
"He can push decisions which are actually stupid but reflect his own views and vision of the world," Lankov said. "Whether he's in complete control or partial control, I know not."
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton