N. Korean Security Services Would Impede Reforms: Rights Group

Posted July 20th, 2012 at 6:00 am (UTC-5)
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As North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un consolidates power, a Washington-based human rights group warns that the communist country's vast network of internal security services poses a major challenge to any potential reform efforts.

The report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea outlines the inner workings of the authoritarian state's three main security agencies – the State Security Department, the Ministry of Public Security and the Military Security Command.

“Whether or not North Korea collapses, evolves, or continues to muddle through will depend a great deal on the viability of this all-pervasive apparatus,” says Ken Gause, a North Korean leadership expert who authored the study.

The report detailed how the powerful agencies play a key role in Kim Jong Un's consolidation of power, explaining that they often spy on one another in an attempt to root out dissent from the inside.

They also rely on constant surveillance, a network of informants, and the threat of punishment in infamous prison camps that keep the North Korean people “under a level of oppressive control few societies in the past century have had to endure.”

The study was released after the announcement that Kim Jong Un, who became the third member of the Kim dynasty following his father's sudden death in December, had been given the top military title of “marshal”. Three days earlier top military commander Ri Yong Ho had been dismissed from all his military and political posts, giving rise to speculation about a reshuffling of North Korea's leadership.

The committee's executive director, Greg Scarlatoiu, tells VOA the moves may be an attempt to wrestle power and influence away from those viewed as potential competitors.

“In the case of this vice marshal, Ri Yong Ho, it may be that it's all about an internal power struggle, eliminating him from the picture,” said Scarlatoiu, before adding that it may also be about a “power struggle between the military and the Korean Worker's Party.”

But Scarlatoiu says the moves are not likely related to efforts to bring reforms to the notoriously reclusive country, saying the young Mr. Kim was chosen by his father, Kim Jong Il, specifically because he was most likely to follow in his footsteps.

“He's the youngest of three sons – he was not selected because he was likely to be a reformer,” he says. “The purging of one hardliner doesn't necessarily mean that reformers will be put in place.”

And Scarlatoiu says that even if Mr. Kim wanted to reform, he likely has not accumulated enough power in his hectic seven months in office to bring about immediate changes.

He says the true power may ultimately lie with a behind-the-scenes leadership that is rapidly working to create a personality cult around the latest Kim in order to preserve a dynastic leadership succession that has now lasted for three generations.