DPRK Fighting Against Bureaucracy and Corruptio

Konstantin Asmolov

On December 23, 2016 at the opening of the First Conference of Chairpersons of the Primary Committees, the Chairman of the WPK Kim Jong-un delivered a speech, in which the author of this article has noted several important points.

Kim Jong-un said that “the outcome of the true implementation of the Party line and policy is fully dependent on the ideological and political maturity, organizational abilities, revolutionary fervour and persistent scope of the chairmen of Primary Party Committees. Draw-backs, noted among some Party officials, hinder the progress of our work and weaken the role of our Party among the people.”

In his next speech at the same conference Kim Jong-un called for “an increase to the resolute struggle with the administrative and bureaucratic tendencies in the Party work.” So, he not only provided instructions to start a broad ideological struggle against excessive bureaucracy, which is the cause of abuse and corruption, but also openly mentioned that there are Party organizations, which carry out the Party’s policy in word alone, without taking real measures for its implementation.

According to the KCNA, Kim Jong-un said that there are some groups in the Party where there were widespread ‘defeatist’ moods. Meanwhile, in case of failure in the fight against bureaucracy, the Party may be considered as an obsolete political organization incapable of continuing the revolution. In his speech, he announced the decision to start a large-scale ideological struggle against bureaucracy in order to eliminate its consequences, including corruption. Kim Jong-un noted the necessity of sharing all hardships and difficulties of the common people as the method of performing the task. The North Korean leader said that the party officials should not instruct the people but obey their will.

This is not the first such statement made by Kim Jong Un. Here is a quote that seems very indicative: “Recently, I said that work should be done so that people always, no matter where they were, shout: “Long live the Workers’ Party!” The meaning of my advice is that people willingly shout: “Long live the Workers’ Party!” and that should happen everywhere: not only at meetings but when they are alone on a secluded island or in a hilly wild spot. If our senior officials, servants to the people, shedding patriot sweat will always be on their feet, wearing away, so to say, their shoes in order to increase the wealth and power of our country, our Homeland, and create conditions for the prosperous life of the people, people would shout from the depth of their hearts always and everywhere: “Long live the Workers’ Party!”

Thus, Kim Jong-un understands that respect for the regime should come from the heart and, to a large extend, from a desire to raise the standard of living to make people see that the authorities are really working hard for their benefit. The leadership style of Kim Jong-un also corresponds to this statement: he rushes around the country very actively, leading in every area. The small size of the country allows for hands-on control to be effective enough; and information disseminated about his trips suggests a wide range of supervised items.


However, the speech from the rostrum may indicate that the conference was very important. First, this may be considered as an attempt by Kim Jong-un to start searching for his ‘support group’ among the relatively young and stand-out officials with initiative from the lower level of bureaucracy. This is important as earlier the author did not notice mass training of a new generation of leaders. More precisely, there are no visible indicative measures similar to the “Three-Revolution Teams” (as there was when Kim Jong Il was entering into power) or the Soviet ‘Komsomol enrolment’ to the Party.

From this point of view, the secretaries of primary organizations are a good talent pool and provide the opportunity to meet with them all and to pick some out. Since the lower Party leadership is largely merged with the State one, the Party secretary is the second or even the first person who deals with the pressing issues and it is their assistance that the rank and file Party members may seek to some extent.

Second, Kim Jong-un openly raised the issue of fighting bureaucracy and corruption but also noted the presence of ‘defeatist’ moods. That this problem was directly voiced by Kim shows that the problem has not only reached a certain scale but it has also been explicitly recognized and it will be tackled. Third, in this context it should be noted that Kim Jong-un is paying serious attention to the struggle for the moral perfection of Party members and also that its prestige would be based on actual cases and real examples. This is a step up over the old ways of overcoming this disease which boiled down to recommendations to ‘stay in the midst of the people’.

Finally, this measure may be perceived as an attempt by the country’s leader to gain the support of the lower ranks of the bureaucracy against the higher ranks. It is difficult to say whether Kim Jong-un is experiencing objective or subjective difficulties in terms of control but attention may be drawn to the fact that this control is almost fully hands-on. Kim Jong-un travels around the country a lot, personally looks into local problems; however, this may also be seen as evidence that the bureaucratic structures are rather inert, feedback is poor (it is a general weakness in authoritarian systems), and in order to clarify the local situation, the young Marshal has to take a look at everything with his own eyes.

It is well known that the elite was (and continues to be) deeply shaken when Kim Jong-un came to power; and it is not all connected to Jang Sung-taek. A number of statements by high-ranking defectors (e.g. Thae Yong-ho) may as well be read as ‘they started to demand more and punish the nomenclature harsher’, while the life of common people is really becoming easier. This includes from the point of view that the State interferes less into citizens’ private lives.

It is well known that Kim often changes Heads of Departments, raising or lowering their ranks. Thus, while Kim Jong-un has been in power the average duration of tenure as Defense Minister has been nine and a half months, and the duration of tenure as Chief of the General Staff has been 11 months. For comparison, while Kim Jong Il was in power, the average duration in office as Defense Minister was four and a half years.

However, both Chinese and Russian experts say that the Centre’s weakening influence over the lower levels, resulting not only in the weakening of control and an ‘underground economy’ where locals mostly live on unearned income, is a serious structural threat to the regime. Although the local authorities have started to think more about profitability and are less bound by ideological blinders, corruption wedges itself into the relations between the people and the authorities, and creates distrust towards them, while effective reforms may only be carried out from the top.

I would like to personally add that this trend also nurtures a layer of corrupted officials who benefit from the current situation so well that they may sabotage the activities of the Centre to strengthen the administrative system and improve its effectiveness for their individual or regional goals by creating a wall between the Centre and the situation developing on the ground locally.

Apparently, that was precisely the reason why Kim Jong-un came down to the earth and began to work directly with local representatives.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”



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