Yongusil 46: Exit, Voice, and Plurality in Leiden

By | September 21, 2014 | No Comments

According to Remco Brueker, the senior scholar who hosted this week’s landmark “State of Non-Legitimacy” academic conference at Leiden University, the aim of the undertaking was to foster better global understanding of North Korean policy making and state management structures.

Any such effort must by necessity revolve around the roles of a tiny number of overwhelmingly powerful political departments within the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). First among these is the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), known in Korean as the jojik-jidobu (조직지도부; 組織指導部). Particularly under its wily former boss Kim Jong-il, the OGD did more than any other bureau to lock in the absolutism of thought and deed that is inherent to and entirely indistinguishable from North Korean political life writ large. Without the OGD, it is widely assumed, North Korea’s quixotic, ugly personalist-Party hybrid system would collapse in a welter of recrimination and violence.

It is true that, as has been previously noted, late former KWP International Secretary Hwang Jang-yop was also rather clear about the role of the OGD in his speeches and writings alike, so by rights the information offered here in the Netherlands should not have come as a surprise to anyone. That it was a shock to so many is testament to two major issues; first, the fact that defector voices, no matter how knowledgeable, have for too long been ignored by mainstream politicians and policymakers who should know better; and second, that the information itself was not always delivered as coherently as it should have been.

Gratifyingly, this conference made no such mistake. The framework was clear: Invite former officials from the North Korean foreign ministry, military, security forces, party administration, state economic management, and propaganda, then request that they employ structural explanation and good, old-fashioned anecdotes to demonstrate the all-pervasive role of the OGD (along with that of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, United Front Department, and the security forces).

The benefit that accrues to having such a large group of former elite officials speaking one after the other on closely connected themes soon becomes evident. First and foremost, such a set-up vastly improves the viewer’s appreciation of the interlocking work of core party departments in running the state (and how the structure that emerges inevitably results in the general emasculation of “traditional” governing structures, which then end up as broadly symbolic and with little decision-making authority).

But moreover, it allows viewers to push past the relatively linear task of returning voice to a group of people who, to our great shame, have for too long been ignored. Above and beyond this, it also introduces the notion of plurality of North Korean voices. This is of equal importance in the long run.

Only a fool would conceive of North Korean escapees, elite or otherwise, as speaking with a unitary voice. All states are complex enough to attract divergent opinions; even North Korea, which another exiled elite, Kim Kwang-jin, once described as “the most boring place on earth.” Yet the idea of a monolithic defector voice is also regularly assumed. In Leiden, however, it became abundantly clear that each speaker, with his specific expertize drawn from a discrete sector of North Korea’s stovepiped governing structure, harbors a slightly differing assessment of “what it all means.” The core is the same, naturally enough, but there is considerable divergence at the margins.

For instance, two consecutive speakers stated firmly that Kim Jong-un is the current head of the OGD. This does not necessarily mark out an oppositional viewpoint to the one presented by the event’s most public voice, Jang Jin-sung. What it does do, however, is problematize Jang’s conception of Kim as a puppet living outside the structure of the OGD whilst governed by it. Instead, the idea that Kim may in fact be head of the organ renders him as something closer to an incompetent executive; like someone promoted out of harm’s way by exasperated underlings, but one who still has the residual capacity to make his voice heard in a range of ways. This is a debate worth having, and one that owes much of its existence to this Leiden gathering.

It is plurality that will give elite exiles their power going forward. Without it, the presumption that “defector opinion” is wholly predictable will linger malevolently, to the great detriment of anyone who cares to research and understand North Korean society. Informed exile voices are vital. As, naturally, is unconstrained public debate like this over what those voices use their growing stature to actually say.

Watch the full video of Jang Jin-sung’s lecture here: http://www.leidenuniv.nl/video/lecture-jang-jin-sung/

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