North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Has the State Security Boss Been Dismissed?

General Kim Won Hong performs a song during an April 2012 concert to mark International Women's Day (Photo: NK Leadership Watch file photo).

General Kim Won Hong performs a song during an April 2012 concert to mark International Women’s Day (Photo: NK Leadership Watch file photo).

ROK media, citing a sources “familiar with North Korean affairs,” alleges that General Kim Won Hong (Kim Wo’n-hong) was “dismissed” from his position, possibly during December 2016.  According to Yonhap, “Kim might have been dismissed for abusing his position and on corruption charges, adding there is a slim chance for him to be reinstated”and also speculated that General Kim’s rank had been downgraded.  The reasons for General Kim’s rumored removal from office cited by ROK media echo an earlier rumor that during late December he was under surveillance and investigation by the Workers’ Party of Korea [WPK] Organization Guidance Department [OGD].

When formally appointed Minister of State Security [Director of the State Security Department] during 2012, Kim Won Hong was the first person to officially and publicly hold the position since the 1987.  From 1987 until around 2003, late leader Kim Jong Il (Kim Cho’ng-il) served as the de facto Minister/Director of State Security and ran its affairs through, alternately, the WPK Administration Department [AD] and the OGD.  During the late 1980s KJI proposed that his brother-in-law, the late Jang Song Thaek (Chang So’ng-t’aek), run Sate Security, but was ultimately overruled by late DPRK President Kim Il Sung (Kim Il-so’ng) who viewed Jang as “too greedy.”  In 2003, KJI installed a former DPRK spy hunter called U Tong Chuk (U To’ng-ch’uk) to be involved in some of State Security’s daily management as a Vice Minister (deputy director) of State Security.  Around 2006 or 2007, U Tong Chuk’s power in State Security expanded and he was running much of State Security’s daily affairs in coordination with OGD and the AD.

Kim Jong Un (L) shakes hands with Minister of State Security, Gen. Kim Won Hong, during a commemorative photo session with MSS personnel (Photo: KCNA)

Kim Jong Un (L) shakes hands with Minister of State Security, Gen. Kim Won Hong, during a commemorative photo session with MSS personnel (Photo: KCNA)

In 2009, U was elected a member of the DPRK National Defense Commission, at that time the country’s supreme power organization, and began holding the specially-created title Senior Vice Minister of State Security/Senior Deputy Director of the State Security Department.   In this position, U Tong Chuk was also part of a transition team for Kim Jong Un’s (Kim Cho’ng-u’n) hereditary succession.He was also elected an alternate member of the WPK Political Bureau and a member of the WPK Central Military Commission.  General Kim Won Hong was seemingly serving as Director of the Military Security Command [MSC] based on all outward appearances (such as his serving as KJI’s lead escort during KPA field inspections and military-related events) and General U was running State Security.  Of course, this odd transitional management was all the more possible due to the leadership of the WPK AD by Jang Song Thaek to whom, in 2007, KJI had outsourced the operational management of State Security, the MSC, People’s Security, the courts and the prosecutor’s office.

During 2010, rumors emerged that General Kim was no longer heading MSC, but had been appointed a deputy director’s position in the KPA General Political Department.  What is more likely is that the leading position at MSC, which works closely with State Security, was held on a concurrent interim basis by General Kim and his successor (and current director) General Jo Kyong Chol while General Kim transitioned to heading State Security.  At the same time, General Kim deepened his relationship with Kim Jong Un (at the encouragement of the latter’s aunt Kim Kyong Hui [Kim Kyo’ng-hu’i]) and during 2009 to 2011 escorted Jong Un on the leader-in-waiting’s solo KPA inspections.  During the 3rd Party Conference in September 2010, Kim Won Hong was seen sitting to the right of Kim Jong Un.

During the fall of 2011, several sources indicated that the DPRK has installed its first head of State Security since 1987; one erroneous open source report indicated that U Tong Chuk had taken the top title.  The rumors may have been inaccurate, but they appeared at the same time as KJI was writing his will and making his final plans.  This makes it all the more likely Kim Won Hong was working as head of State Security, but his position had yet to be publicized.

Kim Won Hong (tagged) stands behind Kim Jong Un during a photo-op with Kim Jong Il and former PRC Ambassador to the DPRK Liu Hongcai. Standing next to General Kim is another member of the Gang of Five, Mr. Kim Kyong Ok. (Photo: NK Leadership Watch file photo).

Kim Won Hong (tagged) stands behind Kim Jong Un during a photo-op with Kim Jong Il and former PRC Ambassador to the DPRK Liu Hongcai. Standing next to General Kim is another member of the Gang of Five, Mr. Kim Kyong Ok. (Photo: NK Leadership Watch file photo).

Kim Won Hong was a member of Kim Jong Un’s personal Gang of Five–that is to say, core elites whose ties to Jong Un go back to 2007-2008 and who were on the ground floor as his hereditary succession took shape.  If you see pre-2010 photos of Jong Un, or watch the documentary film about Ko Yong Hui (Ko Yo’ng-hu’i), all of these men show up.  Since Jong Un’s accession, they have moved into positions of higher office and or seen their power and influence grow in the DPRK’s political culture.  Along with General Kim, they include Choe Ryong Hae, General Jo Kyong Chol, WPK Vice Chairman and Director Kim Yong Chol (Kim Yo’ng-ch’o’l) and Senior WPK Organization Guidance Department Deputy Director Kim Kyong Ok (Kim Kyo’ng-ok).  If Kim Won Hong has been removed from office, and does not migrate to another position, this would be the first time that Kim Jong Un Un has dismissed one of his initial, key political supporters; the Gang of Five, then, becomes a Gang of Four.

Under Jong Un’s reign, Kim Won Hong has been elected a member of the Political Bureau, retained his position on the CMC.  He was also elected to the NDC and migrated to membership on the State Affairs Commission when the latter organization was established over the NDC as the DPRK’s supreme power organization during June 2016.  Kim was selected to greet former DNI Jim Clapper at Pyongyang Airport in 2014.  He was also tapped by Jong Un to lead Group 109, which monitors foreign imports along with cell phone and computer usage.

The down wing of General Kim’s tenure concerns the myriad tasks of State Security’s leading official–Kim played a major role in the dismissal and execution of Jang Song Thaek, has presided over all dismissals, deaths and disappearances (although Seoul exaggerates the actual numbers of these things), collected, collated and conveyed numerous investigation, CI and surveillance reports and on a daily basis General Kim faced the hard realities of the DPRK’s prison system.

The stated reason for General Kim’s rumored dismissal, “abuse of power and corruption” is an ambiguous and amorphous motivation to jettison a core cadre.  If he has been removed from office (or even if he is undergoing revolutionization), there are number of institutional factors.  There are no signs that he had fallen out of favor, so he may instead of fallen on his sword.  State Security has had quite a few doozies during the last couple of years.  This includes problems with social control in the provinces which border the PRC, the permanent migrations of mid-level elites and their children out of the country and the leaking of information out of the country.  The biggest fish that State Security failed to fry was former diplomat Thae Yong Ho (T’ae Yo’ng-ho) who defected from his diplomatic posting in the UK to the ROK during the summer of 2016; rather than arrive in the South, be debriefed and keep his mouth shut, Thae has been rather outspoken since his arrival in the ROK.

During early 2016 rumors emerged in ROK media that Colonel-General Ri Yong Gil (Ri Yo’ng-kil) had been removed from office and had been executed; Ri later resurfaced during the 7th Congress of the WPK in May 2016 and was elected to several Party positions.  He is currently the Director of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] General Staff Operations Bureau, one of the most powerful jobs in North Korea’s armed forces.  During the fall of 2015, ROK-based rumors also emerged that Choe Ryong Hae (Ch’oe Ryong-hae) had been removed from office which were contradicted by rumors that Choe had not been removed per se, but was undergoing re-education; Choe is currently the DPRK’s #3 leading official.  Last summer, there were rumors that DPRK Vice Premier Kim Yong Jin (Kim Yo’ng-chin) had been executed; while Kim may no longer serve in the upper echelon of the DPRK Cabinet, he is still very much alive.  Until General Kim is observed or appears in state media reporting, or a replacement has been announced, word of his dismissal should be taken with a heavy dose of skepticism.

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