North Korea restructures government departments following policy shift toward South Korea 

iStock.com / Dilok Klaisataporn

Agencies in North Korea responsible for inter-Korean affairs are being reorganized and, in some cases, closed down, following Kim Jong-un’s strategic decision in December to abandon reunification and reposition South Korea as a hostile foreign enemy. 

It is too early to gain a complete picture but analysts are closely following developments as the bureaucratic realignment will give a clearer indication of the intention behind the unexpected change of direction.

A major indicator will be how the Central Committee’s United Front Department (UDF) is restructured. This body has been directing exchanges and dialogue, as well as propaganda and agitation directed at the South.

UDF departments for North-South dialogue, exchanges, and economic cooperation are expected to either be transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or completely abolished. In the new year, Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui began discussions with UDF head Ri Son-gwon about this, according to KCNA.

Some front organizations are expected to be closed and UDF personnel managing them reassigned or let go. The North Korean chapter of the Pan-Korea Alliance for Reunification, for example, was already closed in Pyongyang in January and its southern counterpart in Seoul followed suit in February. On the other hand, the Anti-Imperialist National Democratic Front (AINDF) is likely to continue. It is a pro-Juche group in South Korea which is banned but may have underground operatives. It operates a radio station within North Korea.

If these changes go ahead, the UDF will shrink considerably. It may drop the word “united” and be renamed, as it will no longer be an umbrella organization. Or it may merge with the party’s relatively small Cultural Exchange Bureau. This agency recruits South Korean sympathizers and manages spies and overseas pro-North organizations such as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan and the General Association of Koreans in China.

Another possibility is that both the UDF and Cultural Exchange Bureau may be transferred and fall under the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), the main foreign intelligence service that handles information gathering and clandestine operations worldwide. 

Such a move fits the redefining of South Korea as a foreign country and Kim Jong-un’s bold statements about occupying, pacifying, and taking over South Korea through a “War of Resistance,” which many analysts are interpreting as meaning unification with conventional forces backed by use of nuclear weapons. In other words, the effort is no longer to convert South Koreans to the northern cause, but to defeat an enemy country. 

We note that Kim Jong-un in 2009 transferred the party’s External Investigations and Intelligence Department (known as Office 35) and the Operations Department, which specialized in kidnapping foreigners, to the RGB.. 

There’s also an argument to be made from the personnel point of view. Two figures Kim has relied on regarding South Korea, UDF head Ri and his predecessor, Kim Yong-chol, are both former RGB heads. It is highly likely they are recommending the transfer of espionage operations aimed at South Korea to the RGB. 

As for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs absorbing UDF functions and personnel, it will either set up new departments covering South Korea or expand existing departments. Future strategies and policies related to the South will change and be set up and implemented as diplomatic strategies. Thus, if North and South Korea sit down for dialogue in the future, we may expect the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and not the UDF to be in charge.

Besides reorganization, the bureaucracy will also be tasked with extensive revisions of party regulations, laws, documents and textbooks, not to mention place names and other things, to rid them of expressions related to unification. This will cause considerable confusion, dissatisfaction, and hardship among officials and workers.

To give an immediate example, the Tongil (unification) subway station near Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang, where the main statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stand, has had the “Tongil” removed pending renaming. It’s currently just called “Station.” 

North Korean citizens will be bracing for more of this kind of confusion while the bureaucracy gets its act together.

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