An elite group of exiles from North Korea gathered in September in the Netherlands to discuss the state of the regime they used to serve. The conference included top diplomats, an ex-senior official of the Ministry of Security, and a high-ranking military officer, but the keynote address was given by Jang Jin-sung, formerly a key member of Kim Jong-il's propaganda machine. Included in Jang's speech was a surprising assertion: North Korea is in the midst of a civil war.
According to Jang — a former counterintelligence official and poet laureate under Kim Jong-il — members of the government's Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), a powerful group of officials that once reported only to Kim Jong-il, have stopped taking orders from his son, Kim Jong-un. The OGD, Jang says, has effectively taken control of the country, and a conflict is simmering between factions that want to maintain absolute control over the economy and others seeking to gain wealth through foreign trade and a slightly more open market.
"On one hand, it's people who want to maintain a regime monopoly," Jang told VICE News through a translator in an interview Thursday. "On the other hand, it's not like people are fighting against the regime, but in a policy sense they want to take advantage to get influence. It's not actually consciously civil war, but there are these two incompatible forces at play."
Jang's statements come during a moment of peak curiosity about the hermit kingdom. Kim Jong-un — the portly 31-year-old who assumed the title of Supreme Leader after his father's death in 2011 — has been absent from public view for nearly a month. He was last seen walking with a pronounced limp during a July ceremony commemorating the death of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. He typically presides over the Supreme People's Assembly, a rubber-stamp parliament, but missed the meeting in early September, and was replaced by a propaganda video that again showed him limping. "Despite some discomfort, our Marshal continues to come out and lead the people," the film's narrator said.
Rumors abound about the cause of his absence, including a report from South Korea's Chosun Ilbo that he recently underwent surgery after fracturing both of his ankles "during a grueling tour of military bases and factories in Cuban heels." The South Korean news agency Yonhap cited anonymous sources saying that Kim, a heavy smoker who has become markedly plump since assuming the role of dictator, is "suffering from gout, along with hyperuricemia, hyperlipidemia, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure."
Whatever the cause, Kim Jong-un's absence has sparked another round of speculation about the stability of the North Korean regime and what will happen to the country if the young dictator dies or becomes deposed. Rumors of a coup spread quickly earlier this week on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, followed quickly by a stern denial from China, the regime's chief ally. A US State Department spokeswoman told reporters Monday that the coup reports are unconfirmed.
Jang, however, believes the coup actually happened in 2013, and says Kim Jong-un is only serving as a puppet leader with officials from the OGD pulling the strings. After going into exile, Jang became a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, and authored a memoir, Dear Leader, about his time serving Kim Jong-il. Jang is also the founder and publisher of New Focus International, an independent outlet for North Korea news and analysis. Combined with his knowledge of the inner-workings of North Korean bureaucracy, Jang says he maintains contact with sources inside the regime that provide him with current information.
According to Jang, the coup coincided with the execution of Jang Sung-taek, Kim Jong-un's uncle by marriage. A longtime political rival of the OGD but considered untouchable because of his family ties to Kim Jong-il, Jang Sung-taek was officially charged with "consolidating his own power with factional maneuvering" and selling off state resources at below market value for personal profit. He was summarily purged last December, and a popular but false rumor had him being eaten alive by dogs.
"When Jang Sung-taek was executed that was, basically, that totally broke everything," Jang said. "You just can't touch a Kim family member publicly… It's the OGD's claim to legitimacy. It's them saying no one is more legitimate than them. By Jang dying, Kim Jong-un is now surrounded by the OGD."
Jang's New Focus International reported on the "coup" in December and dissected the politics that were at play. According to the New Focus International report, the OGD has exercised virtual control over North Korea since its foundation by Kim Jong-il in the early 1990s. Other members of the government and the military became "honorary power holders and proxies," while "the men who exercised power on behalf of Kim Jong-il remained behind the scenes through the parallel OGD structure then as now." It described Kim Jong-un as "the avatar of the Kim family cult," and, "the legitimizing face of a state ruled by [the] OGD."
Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, which hosted the conference of elite North Korean exiles in September, says Jang isn't the only former senior regime official to suggest that the OGD is a shadow government that rules behind the scenes with Kim Jong-un as a figurehead.
'The real power resides within that one department, the OGD, that was groomed to bureaucratic perfection by Kim Jong-il.'
"The real power resides within that one department, the OGD, that was groomed to bureaucratic perfection by Kim Jong-il," Breucker told VICE News. "When he was alive, he was in practical sense heading the department. Kim Jong-un is not. It serves him, but it more serves the legacy of Kim Jong-il. Those don't always coincide."
Jang predicts that the North Korean regime will collapse in the coming years due to divisions between older elites and a younger generation that is benefitting from the growth of private markets in North Korea. While the regime once maintained rigid control over the North Korean economy and food supply, today people trade goods and services in public markets that are still technically illegal but widely tolerated.
Matthew Reichel, founder of Pyongyang Project, a group which organizes study tours of North Korea for foreigners, has traveled extensively throughout the country, and recently returned from a month-long trip to Pyongyang, Chongjin, Hamhung, and other cities in the country's north. He says the markets are "thriving."
"It's not anything particularly new, it's just something that's growing in size," Reichel told VICE News. "You can go into a market in Pyongyang or Chongjin or any city and get things you'd use every day, basically anything you'd find in the North Korean version of Walmart."
Reichel said he observed people wearing fashions from South Korea and China, indicating they have access to forms of foreign media that were once banned. Some government officials view the new freedoms as a threat to their power, but cracking down is a risky move that could lead to total collapse of the economy and a repeat of the famine in the mid-'90s that led thousands of people to starve to death.
"Because the public distribution system has utterly failed, they've lost so much control of the country," Reichel said. "When they can't control the economy, this is in essence a loss of control of the country. It's been that way since the end of the famine and that's not going to reverse itself."
Others argue that the burgeoning market economy does not necessarily spell writing on the wall for the North Korean regime. Chad O'Carroll, director of NK News, a Seoul-based North Korea news source, said similar arrangements already exist in Iran, Zimbabwe, and other authoritarian dictatorships.
"It gives them less control than it used to, that's certain," O'Carroll said. "But because that's happening, it doesn't mean it's going to collapse. I don't necessarily buy this argument that it's going to lead to an imminent collapse."
Jay Ulfelder, an independent political consultant who studies democratization, coups d'etat, and state collapse, said the conditions in North Korea don't seem ripe for the sort of popular uprising that typically forces totalitarian regimes to cede power. China's role in the situation is also key, Ulfelder said, because North Korea is so heavily dependent on them economically.
"I get the impression that China is pretty committed to playing that role to sustain a friendly regime on its border as a buffer against South Korea and the US," Ulfelder said. "From their perspective, the loyalty and the stability are far more beneficial than any sort of minor gains that might accrue from having a somewhat wealthier or more liberalized North Korea."
Ulfelder noted that it's in the self-interest of elite exiles to play up the possibility of regime collapse in North Korea, and pointed out that pundits have been saying for years that the country is on the verge of upheaval. He pointed to analysis he wrote in 2012 for Foreign Policy, which stated that, "Waiting for North Korea to crack open is like waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series, and no amount of wishing makes it so."
The fact that the regime possesses nuclear weapons and has seemingly no regard for human life makes foreign military intervention highly unlikely. The United Nations in February released a report documenting widespread human rights abuses in the country's prison camps, and US Secretary of State John Kerry called for the "evil system" to be shut down. Breuker said the threat of being hauled before the International Court of Justice over prison camp atrocities frightens many of North Korea's ruling elites.
But other experts say it's only a matter of time until feuding among the elites or popular discontent (or perhaps a combination of the two) leads to dramatic changes in the North Korean political landscape. 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, compared the country's political situation to "a house of cards" that is only being held up by the presence of Kim Jong-un.
"If we look at the North Korea situation objectively speaking, obviously all the indicators [for collapse] are there in the sense of uncertain leadership, weak economy, all these things are indicators that the regime is having trouble," Cha said. "The only thing I think we're missing right now is the trigger."
Jang, meanwhile, believes the OGD's grip on power is so strong that Kim Jong-un could be replaced by either of his elder brothers — Kim Jong-nam, 43, and Kim Jong-chul, 33 — as figurehead and business would continue as usual. He also suggested that Kim's absence at the Supreme People's Assembly and withdrawal from public view has actually been scripted by the regime's propaganda ministry. Jang said divisions between adult children of North Korea's elites and the conservative old guard pose the most serious threat to the regime's long-term stability.
"All the OGD kids, basically anyone who has trade or business rights, they're all sons and daughters of the powerful elite," Jang said. "Because of that situation, because of economic trade, there's no order you can enforce. Business by nature is competitive. Within that there will be policy disagreements, there'll be trade feuds, and bickering. That's why it's not going to stay this unified system."
It's extremely difficult to gauge the impact that regime change would on the average North Korean citizen, but, based on his recent visits to the country, Reichel says many people are wary of too much change happening too fast.
"There's a greater fear in Pyongyang of collapse and what destabilization could mean," Reichel said. "There's a concern that even developing the economy should be gradual, because nobody wants anything that could be catastrophic."
As for Kim's recent absence, it's not the first time the supreme leader has gone missing. He was out of public view for separate three-week periods in March and June of 2012, and went 18 days without a public appearance in January 2013.
Asked to speculate about the state of the dictator's health and what it could mean, Jang replied that outsiders focus too much on the actions of Kim Jong-un, ignoring the real power brokers who control the government behind the scenes.
"Basically, the outside world has been brainwashed by Kim Jong-il's dictatorship," Jang said. "They're all thinking along the lines of what they're being given [by the propaganda], but that's not what's really going on."
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton