Listening to Pyongyang’s eliteThe Institute for National Security Strategy in Dogok-dong, Seoul, has a group of experts dubbed the NK Group. Its key members are elite defectors from Pyongyang, including former senior officials of the Workers’ Party and Foreign Ministry. Ko Yong-hwan, who worked as the French interpreter of Kim Il Sung, and Hyon Song-il, nephew of the powerful North Korean military general Hyon Chol-hae, were diplomats and they have been very active since settling in Seoul. It is safe to presume that most of the high-profile defectors who made headlines in the international media are working at this institute.
There are even more high-ranking defectors whose identities cannot be revealed. They are relatives — sometimes the children — of well-known members of Pyongyang’s inner circle. The NK Group is known to offer accurate assessments and analysis on the internal affairs of the North and Kim Jong-un. That is why the institute, an arm of the National Intelligence Service, has gained attention from the media at home and abroad as well as from researchers around the world.
The group recently started preparations to receive new members including Thae Yong-ho, the North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who defected to the South in July. Reports say a senior official from the North Korean mission in Beijing has escaped with his family. Because he was a key official of the Health Ministry, responsible for the health of the Kim family, his defection has made headlines.
The NK Group is known to present conservative assessments about the North, but it now says Pyongyang’s elite are seriously agitated. “We used to live in Pyongyang, and we are very sensitive to these kinds of things,” said an official of the institute who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “After the intelligence authorities asked us some indirect questions, we have the hunch that someone from a powerful family or a powerful institute in the North is preparing to defect to Seoul.”
Key members of the NK Group are alumni of Kim Il Sung University. It is an irony that the most prestigious school in the North — and the highest institution of Juche-oriented education — has produced an elite defector group. An alumni association of the university was even created in the South, although such a group does not exist in Pyongyang.
Kim Kwang-jin, a researcher of the institute, is the president. “Because there is no alumni association in the North, ours is the only Kim Il Sung University alumni organization in the world,” he said.
The 2013 version of the “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System,” a bible for the North Korean people, criticizes sectarianism and familism; it dismisses relatives, friends and alumni as relationships based on favoritism.
The alumni association in Seoul has about 30 members. The late Hwang Jang-yop, who served as the university’s president and a secretary of the Workers’ Party, used to be a member, so it is no ordinary group.
In Pyongyang, the university is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its founding. Established on Oct. 1, 1946 in Pyongyang’s Daesong District near Mount Ryongnam, the university grooms the executive officers of the North Korean people. It has produced about 80,000 graduates, and they are working at the centers of the party and cabinet. Workers’ Party Chairman Kim Jong-un sent a congratulatory message to the university and ordered it to send students to study abroad and admit foreign students.
Kim, however, knows better than anyone that his orders are not exactly realistic. Enraged by Thae’s defection two months ago, Kim issued a special order that North Korean diplomats and workers must send their children back to the homeland — to be held as hostages to avert any defections by their parents. Expecting international research and debates on the campus of the university, where the Internet does not exist, is like seeking a fish from a tree.
North Korea proudly stresses that Kim Jong-il, the late father of the young ruler, is a graduate of the Kim Il Sung University. The former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries had asked him to study in their lands, but he refused. “I want to study at a university named after my father,” Kim Jong-il was quoted as saying. He studied political science and economics.
And yet, he sent his three sons, including Kim Jong-un, and his daughter to Switzerland from an early age. He knew better than anyone the disaster his children would bring to the country if they were educated at home.
After Kim Jong-un took power in 2011, the elite of North Korea believed that the young ruler, based on his experiences abroad, would allow reform and opening up of the country. That didn’t happen.
His politics of extreme fear, including the brutal execution of his uncle, suffocated even his supporters. South Koreans’ sympathy for the North evaporated after his nuclear and missile provocations. Even after flood damage that killed hundreds, he still pressed the button for the fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9. As the supreme leader built a wall against the international community’s moves to help the victims, the elite of Pyongyang appear to have given up hope.
During a visit to Pyongyang three years ago, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj gave a speech at Kim Il Sung University. The North Korean authorities were baffled by his message of stressing the importance of human rights and the rule of law, and the speech was kept secret until the presidential palace of Mongolia made it public.
The voice of Elbegdorj, who ended a communist dictatorship and brought democracy to Mongolia, has stayed in the minds of the students. “It is the desire of the people to live free,” he said. “No tyranny lasts forever.”
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 7, Page 32
*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute and a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.