North Korea is often called the world’s most secretive country. When western journalists have been allowed inside, they said what they saw was a kind of show, rather than reality. The western media routinely reports on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, while inside North Korea, the big bad wolf is the West. In 2017, the country was blamed by the U.S. and the U.K for the massive WannaCry cyber-attack, while North Korea said this was nonsense and the accusation was just to foment more hatred against the country. One thing that is certain, though, is that North Korea is hidden somewhat behind a curtain of secrecy. Today we will attempt to make some things more clear, at least in terms of who matters most in the realms of North Korean leadership, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Who Runs North Korea?
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is under Communist rule. The 24.5 million people that live there, do so under what is called the Supreme Leader. This man is extolled constantly in the North Korean media, which is run by the government. TV and radio does not allow criticism of the government through these channels, according to the BBC, nor does it allow negative news to air in regards to things such as poverty or human rights abuses. But, our question today is, who is behind all this?
Well, whoever controls the media wields a great amount of power. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) controls newspapers, TV, and periodicals. So it’s safe to say that the Director General of this agency is an important man in the country. His name is Kim Ki-ryong according to some sources, but North Korea Leadership Watch tells us he just died. We cannot find who took over in this position, so we will have to leave it there. All we can say is that this position is very important.
Two of the things the West often hears about North Korea is the pervasive propaganda and also how the country has become a military of significant strength. Who runs the military? Well, that is the Supreme Leader, but he has back up in the form of the Defense Minister. His name is Pak Yong-sik. This 67 year old took over the position in 2015 after the former minister, Hyon Yong-chol, was executed for insubordination. The BBC reports that hundreds of people watched as the man was shredded by anti-aircraft guns. South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency reported that two other men were executed at the same time. One of them was killed because he had disagreed with the Supreme Leader over a matter regarding members of an orchestra.
Holding a lesser position in the North Korean military is the Chief of General Staff. That position is held by Ri Myong-su, and it is reported by the western press that he also took the place of a man that had fallen from the graces of the great leader and was executed for corruption. This was confirmed by South Korean sources, although the same sources later retracted the execution story and said he was still alive. The current chief is one of the top guys when it comes to launching missiles, and he is overseeing North Korea’s nuclear tests and running of the army. He’s said to be 82, which makes him well past retirement age. According to NKNews, there is no retirement age when you can collect a government pension in North Korea.
Let’s now take a look at the government and how laws are formed. North Korea has a Supreme People’s Assembly which is filled by elected deputies from 687 constituencies around the country. While this is made up of many people, it’s ruled over by what’s called a Presidium. The President of the Presidium is another guy that looks like he should have hung up his gloves sometime in the 90s. His name is Kim Yong-nam. He is a sprightly 89 years old and has a very important job. If treaties need signing, he’s the man with the pen. If leaders of other nations come to visit, then he is the person they’ll be seeing. In spite of his age, he has recently travelled the globe for diplomatic relations. He is described by western diplomats as very clever and pleasant to talk with, and he is regarded as a very powerful figure in North Korea.
Another big-wig holding almost as much power in politics is Choe Thae-bok. He’s the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly and has been an advisor to the Supreme Leader, present and past, for many years. He is also described as very intelligent, being fluent in English, German, and Russian. He spends a lot of time travelling the globe, and could also be said to be a mature man as he is 87 years old. That didn’t stop him visiting Iran in 2017 to improve relations with that country. Under him is the Vice Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. That position goes to Kim Wan-su, who is, relatively speaking, a young buck at just 78 years old. He was also the former President of the Central Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is another big position to have in the country. The present President of the Central Bank is Kim Chon-gyun. This man has been modernizing the country’s banking systems and recently has been helping North Korea’s citizens to receive loans and credit cards.
Another position next to military matters, money and making laws, is the person who presides over the country’s courts. That goes to the Supreme Court President and his name is Pak Myong-chol. He is the man at the top when it comes to matters of civil and criminal law. If you’ve turned your back on the country’s propaganda, you can expect that the sometimes unjust sentence you receive had something to do with him.
So, now we come to the biggest names in who runs North Korea. The main man under The Supreme Leader is the Premier of North Korea, Pak Pong-ju. The 78 year old plays a huge part in the country’s economic policies, it’s military, and basically implements all policies that are determined by the Worker’s Party of Korea’s Central Committee.
There is only one man bigger, and that’s The Supreme Leader, an almost God-like figure that is the face of the country. Right now, that is Kim Jong-un, a man who could be either 33, 34, or 35, depending on what you are reading. He is the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, but also holds a slew of different positions. He went to a private school in Switzerland, and later in life was awarded an honorary doctorate in Economics. Inside the country, he’s described as “a great person born of heaven” and outside he’s seen more appearing in comedic Internet memes. As we said, he has too many titles to recount, but he is no doubt the most powerful person in the country.
This list has only contained men so far, so we could say this is a very patriarchal leadership. While most countries follow this structure, North Korea has been criticized and mocked for being a country run by very old men on death’s door. So, we have an honorable mention on this list, and that person has been called the most powerful woman in North Korea. Her name is Kim Yo-jong, and she is the younger sister of the Supreme Leader. She’s 30 years old and said to have a very good relationship with her brother compared to some other family members. Some of those were reportedly executed, and one even fed to dogs. That itself tells you something about her power, but she also holds a position in the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. She is currently her brother’s Chief of Staff, or Chief Secretary, whereby she pretty much organizes his time, security, and movements. She’s the main woman for the main man, and a trusted family member to the leader in a family that is seemingly torn apart.
Could some of you North Korea experts add some more people to this list? Do you believe how North Korea is portrayed by the western media to be the whole truth, or are we also sometimes the victims of propaganda? Let us know in the comments!