Security Agencies Key to Regime's Survival

A new report documents North Korea’s security apparatus that maintains a police state.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) attends a ceremony in Pyongyang, April 13, 2012.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) attends a ceremony in Pyongyang, April 13, 2012.

North Korea’s dictatorship maintains power by relying on a massive network of internal security agencies which compete against each other to spy on citizens from the upper ranks of the military down to each neighborhood, a human rights group said in a report Thursday.

“For sixty years, the internal security apparatus has ensured the survival of the Kim family dictatorship,” the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) said in the report, titled “Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment.”

“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,” it said.

The 163-page report documents how the surveillance apparatus is crucial to the establishment and preservation of the Kim regime, which began with the country’s founder Kim Il Sung followed by his son Kim Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un, the current leader.

It points out that the regime’s survival under the inexperienced Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father’s death in December, will depend on how well the secret monitoring system is maintained among the country's 24 million people.

"Even if Kim Jong Un wanted to reform North Korea's political system, he will come up against security staff intent on purging, arbitrarily arresting and meting out inhuman treatment to all those perceived as threatening to the Kim family's continuance in power," HRNK co-chair Roberta Cohen said in a statement accompanying the report.

“What might ultimately bring change to North Korea is the increased inflow and outflow of information,” HRNK’s executive director Greg Scarlatoiu said.

“The security agencies, however, continue to enforce North Korea’s information blackout.”


Three main security agencies—the State Security Department, the Ministry of Public Security, and the Military Security Command—form a system that relies on “Orwellian” surveillance and coercion tactics, the report said, referring to the fictional totalitarian society described in George Orwell's novel 1984.

But the country’s spies also compete with and spy on each other, preventing any one piece of the system from building up too much power, said the report, written by Ken Gause of the research group CNA.

“The various security organs watch each other and engage in competition despite their specific missions and boundaries,” it said.

“While this fragmentation prevents the emergence of a monolithic security force that could potentially threaten the regime, it makes coordination difficult.”

Additional surveillance comes from citizens themselves, through the unique “in-min-ban” neighborhood watch program, which puts people in networks to monitor each other and report to each of the security agencies.  

“At the most basic level, surveillance is the responsibility of each member of the state,” the report said.

The security agencies, responsible for keeping information from outside the Hermit Kingdom from coming through its borders, are also on the front line of ensuring ideological conformity in the country.

State security agents, who conduct routine checks on radios and confiscate any DVDs of South Korean dramas smuggled into the country, play a primary role in restricting the flow of information, the report said.

North Koreans “suffer under a level of oppressive control few societies in the past century have had to endure," said Andrew Natsios, another HRNK co-chair.

Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.





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