Information from inside North Korea suggests that jurisdiction over border security has been moved from the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces to the National Security Agency(NSA), in a special order given by new leader Kim Jong Eun which has seen border security units undergoing an administrative switch to the NSA on April 16.
A source from North Hamgyung Province told Daily NK on Friday that “The day after Kim Il Sung’s birthday, there was an announcement that the border guards had been moved to the NSA. Officers came down from the NSA to all of the (border) units on Kim Jong Eun’s orders to inspect how they have been doing their jobs and complete the changeover.”
“Commanding officers in the border units are having their MPAF ID cards thrown out and exchanged for NSA ones,” the source added. “Civilians who have previously been found to be involved in defections or smuggling are being reinvestigated, and there are plans to investigate whether they still have arrangements with currently serving soldiers.”
These changes have all the hallmarks of Kim Jong Eun desperately trying to restore central government control of the border, which has been blemished in recent years by a procession of civilian defections, smuggling and leaking of information to the outside world. Previous orders to execute would-be defectors on the spot and ‘exterminate three generations’ of defectors’ families have also been attributed to Kim Jong Eun, revealing a nasty streak to rival if not overtake that of his father.
Given that increased controls around border areas and in Pyongyang following Kim Jong Il’s death have barely dented the numbers of civilian defections, smuggling and outflow of information, the recent decision from Kim Jong Eun appears to acknowledge that border control is much too difficult an issue to deal with using the Military Security Command alone.
“Because of the competition between MPAF and the NSA there was a lot of interference in how defectors were handled,” the source explained. Supplies to border units have been irregular, and as a result many troops have resorted to taking bribes and other economic incentives from defectors - often people they know well - and smugglers. The effect of this has been to undermine crackdowns at the border regions. Up until recently, the Military Security Command has been in charge of conducting frequent inspections of border units, however many inspecting officers have been reluctant to punish fellow members of the military, leading to large numbers of offenders getting away with a slap on the wrist.
The changes Kim Jong Eun has ordered appear to play on the lack of mutual loyalty felt between border troops and bureaucrats from the NSA to one another, thus ensuring, at least in theory, that internal investigations will be carried out by the book. Although NSA agents do have formal ranks and a chain of command, the fact that their officers do not take part in combat operations is considered a sign that the sentiment and culture within the NSA is markedly different to soldiers from the MPAF.
The new orders also reveal an intention by North Korea to streamline the process of repatriations, an issue which has put its ally China in a difficult spot and is attracting unwanted attention from the international community. Until now there has been a two-track system in place whereby preventing defections and state supervision has been overseen by the MPAF, leaving the NSA to carry out arrests and repatriations. Now it is expected that all responsibility for preventing and dealing with defections will be carried out directly by the NSA.
Incidentally, what the outside world calls North Korea’s ‘border security units’ are all brigades of the General Security Bureau. The commanding officer of the GSB has a rank equating to something between a lieutenant general and a captain. The GSB has brigades stationed in every province of North Korea except for the coastline, the land border with China and the area of North Hwanghae Province not near the DMZ. Accordingly, the crux of this organizational reshuffle is to move the GSB from under the auspices of MPAF into the NSA.
In actual fact though, border security has traditionally been the jurisdiction of the NSA; it was only in April 2008 that it oversight was moved to MPAF. Essentially, the NSA’s retaking of jurisdiction signals something of a return to the norm. While MPAF was in charge of border security, political agents from the Military Security Command were stationed at each brigade, squadron and company to conduct internal supervision; however from now on, it will be political and security guidance officers from the NSA.
Meanwhile, some are wondering whether this measure signals are structural power change in North Korea. The new head of the NSA, General Kim Won Hong, considered a crucial figure in the organizational reshuffle, boasts an array of experience, including having been a senior figure in the Military Security Command and the organizational head of the General Political Bureau.
Jung Sung Jang, chief researcher at the Sejong Institute, says that “Having gone from the MSC to the GPB and now heading up the NSA can be seen as quite a set of promotions. The fact that he was standing on Kim Jong Eun’s right at the 3rd Party Delegates’ Conference in 2010 also says that he is probably one of Kim Jong Eun’s closest aides, even closer than Woo Dong Cheuk.”
And the fact that the border security issue – an issue Kim Jong Eun is very sensitive about – has been moved to the NSA immediately after Kim Won Hong moved into the agency’s top position, appears to be a genuine sign of the esteem with which he is held by the country’s new leader. Kim Won Hong’s new brief far surpasses that of a proven results-getter being parachuted into a pet project; it makes him a key figure in the quest to maintain the political system in North Korea, and that, if nothing else, makes him a figure to watch in months to come.