The rapid ascent of Kim Jong Eun and the building of a new ruling cast in Pyongyang is causing ripples to be felt in North Korea’s foreign currency earning apparatus. In Beijing, it is clear that anyone considered a supporter of Kim Jong Nam or Oh Keuk Ryul faces a rough ride.
One of the most prominent cases is that of Kang, a pro-Kim Jong Nam foreign currency earner who has distinguished himself in various ways, including by installing air conditioning in the Mansudae Assembly Hall. He is noteworthy among North Korea trade workers in China, and was mentioned in articles released by The Daily NK in June on the subject of emergency inspections over North Korean trade departments.
According to the testimony of Kang’s acquaintances, Kang was supposedly summoned to Pyongyang in early July, whereupon he was violently beaten by agents of the National Security Agency. The alleged reason behind the summons was that Kang was guilty of embezzling national assets and corruption; however, trade workers in China generally assume that it was a part of systematically “taking care” of Kim Jong Nam‘s closest associates.
In North Korean diplomatic circles in Beijing, the general interpretation is that Kim Jong Nam‘s outspoken negativity towards North Korea‘s third generation succession has helped to bring trouble upon his supporters.
One Chinese building contractor, Jwa, who sells construction materials to North Korean traders, commented, “Kang pledged allegiance to Kim Jong Nam and received a lot of favors as his affiliate. But a battle between Kim Jong Eun and Kim Jong Nam is taking place, and trade workers are suffering.”
However, the more surprising fact was the return of Kang to Beijing in October. It is highly unusual for someone from a privileged office to be so severely “investigated” by the National Security Agency but then return to their former seat in a foreign trade office.
According to one of Kang’s acquaintances, this was down to the fact that he is actually the person in charge of the North Korean Liaison Office in Beijing.
One Chinese trader who has done business directly with Kang told The Daily NK, “Kang, who is well known as a famous trade worker, was really in charge of North Korean maneuvers for more than ten years while maintaining the identity of a trade worker. This fact has been confirmed through several sources.”
However, South Korean intelligence has neither confirmed nor denied Kang’s true role.
The North Korean Liaison Office is an organization said to be responsible for maneuvers against South Korea, and is thought to have pulled the strings in the South Korean Chosun Workers‘ Party incident of 1992, in which the largest spy ring since the liberation was uncovered, that of Kim Dong Sik, an armed espionage agent arrested in 1995, Choi Jung Nam and Kang Yeon Jung, an agent couple who committed suicide in 1997, the assassination of Lee Han Young, Kim Jong Il’s nephew, in 1997, and the 2006 Ilsimheo spy ring incident.
Mr. Kang also owns a well-appointed villa, recent sedan and VIP membership of the fitness center at a five-star hotel.
Generally, North Korean employees abroad have to leave one of their children in Pyongyang as what can only be described as hostages to loyalty. However, the testimony of Kang’s acquaintances states that he is permitted to live in Beijing with his wife, daughter and son, who has studied in England. This is due to Kim Jong Nam’s full support, an extraordinary level of operational funding and the superior status of a person in charge of a covert operation.
He has avoided being outright purged, despite the fact that he is an affiliate of Kim Jong Nam, thanks to the fact that he is the person in charge of operations against the South. However, other trade workers in China who are also affiliated with Kim Jong Nam are desperate to forge new connections in Pyongyang to secure their positions, and, as such, many seem to have been absorbed by the Jang Sung Taek camp.
Other overseas officials are also on the back foot. Not only are affiliates of Kim Jong Nam being called into Pyongyang, but affiliates of Oh Keuk Ryul, a Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission who is also actively involved in bringing foreign capital into North Korea in de facto competition with Jang Sung Taek, are also being summoned. Oh Keuk Ryul was shut out of the recent process of realigning the Chosun Workers’ Party and has lost a lot of his former influence as a result.
North Korean foreign trade departments are a target of veneration within North Korea. However, trade workers must strive to preserve their status with bribes like supplies which are hard to find within North Korea or large amounts of money. Now the dynamic is changing, so it is proving difficult to preserve their desirable positions.