Kim Family Business: North Korean Elite Social Networks and DPRK Foreign Trade

By | March 22, 2012 | 4 Comments

To what extent is North Korea prone to “open up” to the outside via foreign trade? And what role do North Korean family networks play in this trade activity?  Nicolas Levi writes from Warsaw with much data to consider in pursuit of these questions. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief.   

Kim Family Business: North Korean Elite Social Networks and DPRK Foreign Trade

by Nicolas Levi

Given North Korea’s inherited Soviet-type socialist economic system, attracting foreign trade and investment have tended to play a very limited role for the state. Through its economic difficulties, however, North Korea has realized the importance of foreign trade and is now taking a more realistic approach on this issue.

In a move to cement Kim Il Song’s family as the central social-political institution in North Korea, a reshuffle of key posts and a generational shift has been made among commercial entities. The commercial groups obtained ascension in the first place due of their affiliation with parents who are or were connected to the Kim Il Sung family. A group of North Korean politicians are therefore at the head of commercial activities of North Korea, an interesting socialist as well as legal paradox ,

Ri Myong San

Delegations and Chinese Connections |  Ri Myong San, Vice-Minister of Foreign Trade, is the son of Kim Yong Ju (b. 1920), the brother of Kim Il Sung. Ri is often seen leading North Korean delegations in foreign countries (China, Vietnam, and Cambodia come to mind). He studied at the Research Center for the Study of Capitalism System. Ja Tong Sop, one of the sons of Kim Yong Jun (b. 1936, now Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission) is a Vice Minister of Commerce.

Another son of Kim Jong Jun, Ri Song Ho is working as a Foreign Trade Corporation Officer. Ri Song Il, the son of Ri Yong Ho (the Chief of the General Korean People’s Army staff born in 1942) is an officer at a Foreign Trade Organization. Both of them are trying to attract foreign currencies and investment in North Korea. Ri Song Il worked for a while at the department of International Cooperation in the Ministry of Land and Environment Protection, he’s now dealing with Chinese companies which hope to invest in North Korea[1]. All of these men are connected through – and, one might say, profiting from — their lineage to Kim Il Song.

Kim Chol: The Borderland Connection |  In surveying the Korean provinces bordering China, attention is usually paid to the bookends (North Pyong’an and North Hamgyong/Rason) but rarely the interior rural twins of Ryanggang and Jagang.  Ryanggang is the heart of the North Korean armament industry, and the likely escape point (short of exile) for the North Korean leadership in the event of conflict. Thus its leadership is consequential.  Kim Chol, son of Kim Won Hong, is one of the outstanding politicians of the region, serving as the Chairman of the Ryanggang Province People’s Committee.  Kim Chol is also head of the military secret police known as the Korean People’s Army Security Command.  And, as befits his access to the border region and immense natural resources of his province, he is also a businessman.

Soprano State?  |  North Korea is also taking part in foreign illegal activities. The institution which is dealing with these activities is called “Ponghwajo” (“The Torch Group”). O Se Won, a son of O Kuk Ryol (a close military advisor to Kim Jong Un) is not only a employee in the foreign department of the Ministry of Commerce of North Korea, but also probably the leader of the aforementioned organization. He’s cooperating with Kim Chol Un, one of the sons of Kim Chung Il, who was a close aide to Kim Jong Il within the secretarial office. Another of his counterparts is Kang Tae Sung , who is at the head of a Foreign Trading Corporation (dealing mainly with European Countries). Kang is the son of Kang Sok Ju (b. in 1939), the DPRK Vice Premier Political Bureau Member. All of them are sons of very close allies to Kim Jong Il.

Mun Kyong Dok

Cha Chol Ma a son in law of Ri Je Kang (a former vice director of the Organization and Guidance Department who was a very close advisor to Kim Jong Il) is at the head of Foreign Trading Corporation. He studied at the School of Foreign Languages in Pyongyang  and he’s now involved in the management of the Mansudae Assembly Hall (The Mansudae Assembly Hall is the seat of the People’s Supreme Assembly which is the legislative assembly of DPRK.). He was probably living in Italy. Cha, who formerly served at the foreign ministry and engaged in trade and commerce with China, and is alleged to have earned more than 10 million dollars by monopolizing foreign currency earning businesses run by Supreme People Assembly’s standing committees. He is also said to have expanded his wealth and business knowledge while serving as a diplomat at the North’s embassies in China and Pakistan. He’s cooperating with Jon Song Hun, a North Korean politician and businessman who is the owner and the president of the Korea Puggang Corporation and a former minister of Metal Machinery Industry. We should mention also Mun Kyong Dok who was the director of the Korean General Teyang Corporation and now is the Korean Worker’s Party Chief Secretary of Pyongyang. All of them belong to the generation of future leaders of the DPRK.

Conclusion |  If, absent the total takeover of the North Korean economy by South Korean companies in a collapse-unification scenario, the North Korean economy is in fact going to “open up” to the outside, it will be men such as Kim Chol who lead the way. But does their vision for a third generation of North Korean leadership entail any social change whatsoever?  Is there room for alternative family networks to emerge as a counterweight?  And what, after all, is in their shipping containers?  Future work on these questions, as well as the impact that growing trade flows have on the shape of so-called “factionalism” in the DPRK, remains to be done.


[1] Sinuiju en Corée du Nord, fenêtre ouverte sur le commerce chinois, “Le Monde”, 23rd December 2011.

4 Comments

  1. How come a son of a Kim bears the name Ri? Might you mean son-in-law?

  2. Aidan, thanks for the sharp eyes; amid the welter of names I completely missed that. I hope that our distinguished author will be able to clarify with relative alacrity.

  3. Thanks to both Aidan and Nicolas!

  4. Yes Aidan you’re right, Ri Myong San is the son in law of Kim Jong Ju! Sorry for the imprecision!

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