In a cover story for previous Sisa Journal (February 15, edition 1113), ongoing direct mobile phone interviews between an information agent in South Korea and an informant within North Korea (updating his information real time) was reported on. Open Radio for North Korea have been the most prominent media related to this.
The information source for Open Radio North Korea is very reliable, admitted by other major broadcasters and even government agencies. There is one person in particular who had been most helpful in bringing continual and reliable information from inside the DPRK out to the rest of the world, recognized by North Korean specialists from academia and government agencies. He is Mr. Lee Yun-Keol, a North Korean defector who left the DPRK in 2005.
Mr. Lee is an extremely prominent defector due to his previous career. He is a top class elite of North Korea who graduated from Likwa University(North Korean version of MIT) and he served as a military officer in the Presidential Security Command of North Korea, which is at the center of the North’s leadership. Until recently he did not expose himself to the outside world. After recently coming out of the shadows, with the approval of the South Korean Ministry of Unification, he has instigated the North Korean Strategic Information Service (NKSIS) center in Seoul’s Gangnam district.
His intelligence capabilities proved impressive as soon as he started working. He reported that Kim Jong-un gave out gifts under his own name to NSA agents the day before Kim Jong-il’s birthday, and that Kim Jong-il officially commanded to close down pool halls in the country, which were rampant with prostitution and drug dealing. Such information is hard to get unless you have an access to the core group of the North’s leadership. We met the Chairman of the NKSIS in a cafe in Sinchon on March 2nd for an interview.
Could you explain to us the reasons why you started the NKSIS? I feel that most South Koreans approach the issue of North Korean affairs as a matter of passing interest. The political universe is divided into ins and outs about North Korean affairs. And there is no coherent [S Korean] government policy regarding the DPRK mainly due to the fact that there is a lack of knowledge about North Korea. I played a major role in the formation of Open Radio for North Korea, which really opened up a lot of information coming out of the North that is extremely accurate and useful. However, the direction and strategic aims it was going for were different from my original intention. This is why I founded the NKSIS--to utilize my intelligence capabilities according to my original intention and strategy.
What is the main reason you did not reveal your true identity until now? I thought that it was better for my information sources inside North Korea. I didn’t want them to be found out. Nevertheless, in South Korean society, not much seemed to be left to your discretion unless you take charge of things. There was no way I could achieve my intention without stepping out.
I understand you worked for in the Presidential Security Command of North Korea. What is it like? Its framework is much like the Presidential Security Department of South Korea. However, it is much more powerful than its South Korean counterpart. It shares the same status as the Ministry of the Peoples’ Armed Forces of North Korea. It employs about 100,000 agents, whose primary job is to maintain Kim Jong-Il’s power and prevent any attempts for a coup d’etat It keeps a relatively low profile, and it is not always readily apparent to outsiders, but its real power is extremely strong.
You were an upper class elite in North Korea, what was the reason for your defection? In many cases, revolutions begin with the elite intelligentsia not the ordinary citizens. Small-scale uprisings and protests can break out amongst ordinary citizens, but they need leadership to be affective. Currently in North Korea, there is a feeling of change in the sentiments of the elite class. South Korea should be targeting the North Korean elites, attempting to change their mindset with a strategy.
Coincidentally, in regards to the current revolutions going on in the Middles East, do you think that same revolutionary and pro democracy sentiment will affect North Korea? Personally, I don’t think so. There are some North Korean specialists who have a tendency to try to project these types of external influences onto North Korea, but I think it’s a wrongheaded speculation. North Korea is almost completely isolated from the outside world so the happenings of the rest of the world have very little (if any) influence on the state of affairs inside the country. South Korea must play its role in order to change North Korea.
Within North Korean society, what is the ratio of “elites” to “ordinary” people? Generally speaking, we estimate the number of elites in North Korea to be around 1.8 million out of the general population of 23 million. Typically, elites are people who receive a college education or are engaged in a professional career over 10 years. Of course, there is a hierarchy within the elites as well. There is a core group who is differentiated from the greater elite class. Anyhow, they [the elites] could be the leverage to lead a revolution. From a historical viewpoint, revolutions have tended to originate within social groups that have interests in their society beyond simply self preservation and their own malnutrition. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury afforded to the general North Korean population. I think that without the support of and a fundamental change within North Korea’s elite classes, we cannot expect the collapse of North Korea’s Communist Party government no matter how much better off South Korea is economically.
Do you think the recent defections by North Korean elites imply a change in the political environment of North Korea? Yes, we can look at it that way, but I think South Korea missed a good chance to capitalize on the possibility. South Korea mistreated a former high ranking official of North Korea, Mr. Hwang Jang-Yeop. I think South Korea should have tried to maximize the potential arising from his defection, and they failed to do so setting a bad precedent for the hope of future defections from more high ranking North Korean officials. It’s not too late, nonetheless.
Do you think that North Korean elites have much access to information from outside the DPRK? I think they know quite a bit about the outside world. They can either travel abroad themselves, or experience it indirectly through information passed to them by friends and relatives who have traveled outside of North Korea. Like in South Korea, people get together when someone is back from a trip, and relate to one another their travel experiences. Around ten thousand North Koreans have traveled outside the country, so I expect that a lot of information about the rest of the world has been shared within North Korean elite society.
Presumable, the control and management ?for those elites who have traveled- is very strict about the dissemination of information about the rest of the world, particularly for the inner circles of the North Korean power structure. Of course, if someone is a high ranking government official they are controlled and managed more strictly than ordinary people. That being said, we can always find some room for freedom within even the most tightly controlled societies. Information about the world outside of North Korea cannot be completely regulated.
Can you tell us what you think the biggest concern is for the North Korean elite? Their biggest concern, like people all over the world, is for their futures and the futures’ of their country. They are just forced to keep silent. They only talk about their true feelings with people they are sure that they can trust.
Several days ago you disclosed the privileged information that Kim Jong-un gave expensive presents to the agents of the National Security Agency. Is there any abnormal movements or signs of being disaffected within the military? Not at all; that kind of gesture works to help maintain the stability of the current system. As far as I know, there is no evidence of dissatisfaction in the inner circles of the military. These days, all these North Korean specialists are presuming some sort of major reshuffling is about to take place in the North Korean power structure, which is not going to happen. Conversely, the mood in Pyongyang is extremely calm.
Though it is unlikely in Pyongyang, do you think we will see any restive sentiments in the people from provincial districts in North Korea? The most critical issue for the provincial districts is food distribution. However, it is still unlikely that the people will rise up against the government. The government somehow managed to overcome “The March of Tribulation” ?the period in the early to mid 90s of mass starvation- fairly well, so there is not much of a precedent set for seeing the lack of adequate food being enough to set the general population into an organized uprising. As I said before, I think the most important starting point for a revolution in North Korea is in the elite classes, and creating a change in their manner of thinking.
What is the possibility of change amongst the ordinary (non-elite) people of North Korea? Well, there are already some signs of that. Food distribution is almost nonexistence for provincial people, while capitalist and market economic practices are already widespread throughout North Korea. The problem is that there is no capital. Domestic economy is too bad that it cannot maintain the market economy.
What is the state of Kim Jong-il’s health? I think it is fairly certain that Kin Jong-il will die sometime in the next three years or so. However, the process of the succession of power to Kim Jong-un has already been finished.
Considering that you are from the Presidential Security Command, you might be familiar with the stories about Kim Jong-il having a body double. Yes, it is a true story. Kim Jong-il has a body double who is prepared to step into his place when there is a potential danger ?and he still is.
Is that well known within the inner circles of the North Korean power structure? No, most people do not know that. Only a few people have knowledge of that.
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