NSA on the Edge: Gen. Kim Won Hong and the National Security Agency’s Rise to Prominence on the Frontier
Anyone who has wandered around the city of Berlin in a long twilight or early morning could tell you that borders have meaning, and that severe dangers accrue to those who have, under the wrong circumstances, attempted to breach them. The Sino-Korean frontier is not the site of an iconic wall, nor is it precisely the aperture from slavery into freedom so often evoked, but it is unquestionably a dangerous frontier for those trying to escape the DPRK, either temporarily or forever. How North Korea polices the border is of great interest to us, as is the riddle of how Korean and Chinese agencies cooperate specifically along the border. (The most authoritative piece of scholarship on the matter was published recently in German by Dr.
Steven Stephan Blancke and Jens Rosenke; we aim in the coming months to have at the very least a synopsis of this article available in English for readers.) Jende Huang, SinoNK’s Border Security Analyst, takes on recent changes in the structure of who is policing the frontier on the North Korean side, and concludes with some speculation about Kim Jong Un’s role in guarding the border. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
NSA on the Edge: General Kim Won Hong and the National Security Agency’s Rise to Prominence on the Frontier
by Jende Huang
Now that media attention is focused on North Korea’s failed missile launch as well as their newly unveiled ICBMs rolling on mobile TELs through Pyongyang, the spring furor over North Korean defectors being deported out of China seems to have died down. However, the question of defections and related action on the northern border remains as important to the DPRK regime as it has ever been. A closer look at leadership changes in Pyongyang indicates that they could shift the security calculus on the shared Sino-North Korean frontier.
Proximity to Power: General Kim Won Hong | A South Korean media report stated that the head of the DPRK’s Ministry of State Security, Gen. U Tong Chuk, has been removed from his position, and replaced by Gen. Kim Won Hong, formerly in charge of the Military Security Command. Gen. Kim was identified by KCNA as a new member of the Workers’ Party of Korea Political Bureau, following the 4th conference of the WPK earlier this month.
Only days after the promotion, the DailyNK also identified General Kim as the new head of the National Security Agency (NSA), and reported that the organization had retaken jurisdiction over border security. Though the DailyNK does not explicitly spell out the relationship between the NSA and the Ministry of State Security (either it’s a specific branch within the Ministry, or, more likely, “NSA” is what the Ministry is colloquially called) it has variously stated that the NSA is “responsible for overseeing the stopping of defections” and that “border security has traditionally been the jurisdiction of the NSA.”
The rise of the NSA should not come as much of a surprise, considering recent reports that have been coming from the borderlands. The sourcing all originates from the DailyNK, so of course, the usual caveat emptor must apply (at least until Joshua Stanton is able to browbeat the AP into doing a bit more substantial reporting and we can start applying a “two-source rule” to the DPRK).
Bureaucratic Latitude, Technology, and Resourcing | At the end of January 2012, just as the bureaucracy began the transition into the post-Kim Jong-Il era, the NSA was able to secure more modern communications equipment, as well as expanded authority for its agents. Promises were also apparently made that consultations would be held with China that would allow “NSA agents in the border region cross-border freedom of movement to pursue defectors or the brokers that facilitate their escape.”
Various news items later confirmed this initial reporting. In February 2012, the NSA was said to have been installing additional surveillance cameras on the border, a measure intended to prevent defectors and the smuggling of goods. The next month, it appeared that the NSA was using more sophisticated tactics to capture North Koreans using Chinese cell phones. Instead of blocking all calls, NSA agents would sometimes allow the calls to go through in order to trace the users and arrest them. The NSA was also working with their counterparts inside of Chinese territory, rounding up 22 North Korean defectors around Shenyang in Liaoning Province. And, just as the North Korean defectors’ issue starting take over headlines world wide last month, approximately fifty NSA agents reportedly crossed into China to hunt for defectors.
What Role for Kim Jong Un? | The rise of the NSA is partially attributed to Kim Jong-Un’s personal interest in border security issues following his father’s death. But perhaps it’s something that’s been on his mind for much longer. Citing an article from the Chosun Ilbo, the DailyNK states that Kim Jong-Un was in charge of the NSA since late 2009, which might explain why during his unpictured rise to prominence in 2009 and early 2010, successor propaganda frequently associated him with North Pyong’an and Jagang Province. If the young leader developed an affinity for the NSA, he could now be inclined to personally ensure it has the tools necessary to succeed in its mission. If seen as a reward for his loyalty during the succession period, Gen. Hong’s move to the Ministry of State Security is also a way for Kim Jong-Un to maintain a close, personal eye on border activities and developments.
Though protests are continuing to take place in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul, it is unclear if the North Korean defector issue will cause as much furor again as it did over the past few months. China has apparently stopped sending defectors back to the DPRK for now, supposedly because of Beijing’s disapproval of the failed missile launch. However, this does not mean that the NSA has stopped its work on its side of the border. As Kim Jong-Un solidifies his control over the country, the risk for those who are considering crossing into China will only increase.