O Kuk Ryol: The Old Guard Never Dies
A generation of North Korean leaders came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, and the bonds and relationships which had developed among them during this time — that is, during the Manchurian guerrilla experience and the subsequent North Korean revolution — shaped political developments in Kim Il Sung’s DPRK. Apart from the highly relevant work being done over at NK Leadership Watch, however, analysts all-too-rarely fail to connect events which occurred so long ago with developments occurring today. In this essay, SinoNK.com Analyst Nicolas Levi, based in Warsaw, looks to General O Kuk Ryol to understand how family ties dating from the 1940s are affecting Kim Jong Un’s leadership circle. — Editor
O Kuk Ryol: The Old Guard Never Dies
by Nicolas Levi
O Kuk Ryol [오극렬/呉克烈], born 1931, is a North Korean military general and, since April 2009, has been Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK. Following a brief setback in the 1980s, O has accrued a great deal of authority in North Korea over the past two-decades. O’s rise—and the great deal of trust placed in O by his colleagues—in part stems from his family credentials and revolutionary heritage.
A Revolutionary Heritage | General O is the son of O Jung Hup, a communist revolutionary fighter who fought the Japanese alongside Kim Il-Sung, the ‘eternal president’ of the DPRK. (By some accounts, O is the nephew of O Jung Hup, not his son. In any case, O Kuk Ryol is still protected by a revolutionary lineage.) Because of the connection between their fathers, O Kuk Ryol was also a childhood friend to Kim Jong Il, opening the possibility of having been one of the Kim’s mentor in military affairs. O and Kim were furthermore nurtured by the same women as children, Kim Jong Suk, and thus share another point of connection. The theme of generational and family ties persists today, as the young Kim Jong Un is closely advised by O Se Won, a son of O Kuk Ryol.
A child of a revolutionary hero, O was educated at the prestigious Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang and later enrolled in Kim Il Sung University. He subsequently studied air power and learned Russian at the Frunze Military Academy, one of the most advanced academic institutes for military education in the Soviet Union. Born in Jilin Province (part of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo at the time), O Kuk Ryol is also fluent in Chinese. He is also said to speak English fluently, but, like Kim Jong-Un’s supposed command of German and French, evidence for this assertion is purely anecdotal.
A Rising Political Star | In the 1960s, O Kuk Ryol jumpstarted his career in the North Korean air force and joined the Central Committee of the Korean Workers Party. According to one source, during the Yom Kippur War, O was an air pilot who helped Egyptian forces. In 1979, he was promoted to the head of the North Korean Army. As he rose through the North Korean government, O’s support of Kim Jong-Il’s successor status was crucial during the 1980s.
In 1988, O Kuk Ryol was temporarily sidelined, as Choe Kwang, a former ally of Kim Il Sung, took over O’s leadership posts. Despite this setback, O persevered, and eventually returned to the top of the North Korean military scene in 2009. He was nominated as Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission, the most powerful military organization in North Korea. O, however, is not a very influential political figure—he does not belong to the Politbureau of the Korean Workers’ Party, for example.
O Kuk Ryol is a classic product of the Songun (military-first) oriented North Korean leadership style. He was an advisor to Kim Il Sung, to Kim Jong Il, and now his son, O Se Won, is an advisor to Kim Jong Un—apparently on relations with China. O Kuk Ryol is also reportedly an advisor to Kim Jong Un on operations against South Korea. If this is true, O Kuk Ryol was probably involved and partially responsible for the Cheonan Incident in March 2010.
The O Kuk Ryol Family and Kim Jong Un | Despite the lifelong ties between Kim Jong Il and O Kuk Ryol, it appears that during the last few months of Kim Jong Il’s life, O was pushed completely out of the North Korean political scene, and rumors circulated in 2011 that Kim Jong Un purged many of O’s supports. Nevertheless, it is clear that O Se won, son of O Kuk Ryol, is in fact a close advisor to Kim Jong Un. O Se Won, then, may have asked Kim Jong Un to elevate his father to the top of the North Korean Army.
Beyond O Se Won’s ties to Kim Jong Un, the O Kuk Ryol family is also famous for its involvement with the Mirim Electronic Warfare Institute—an institute which is probably at the forefront of DPRK cyber-security and training North Korean hackers today. O Se Won is also allegedly responsible for North-Korean counterfeiting activities, an important source of income for the DPRK government. O Se Won also figures prominently into a group of third generation North Korean elites called Ponghwajo.
One of O Kuk Ryol’s other children, O Se Uk, defected to the United States in 2004. While family members of defectors are usually punished, O Kuk Ryol and O Se Won were seem to have narrowly avoided any further consequences. Indeed, it seems that O Se Won will continue to absorb more responsibilities and play a key role as North Korea transitions into the third generation of leadership.