The old saying goes that it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. So if you are North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, taking extraordinary steps to ensure your personal security is not crazy, it’s simply common sense.
Earlier in the year, there were reports of the United States and South Korea training for a decapitation strike scenario on North Korea. In May, Pyongyang accused the U.S. of infiltrating “a hideous terrorists’ group” into the North to “to commit state-sponsored terrorism against the supreme leadership of the DPRK by use of bio-chemical substance.”
The Hermit Kingdom is also warily watching the U.S. Army’s preparations to deploy the Gray Eagle attack drone, which has high-altitude precision strike capabilities. So there are plenty of threats to occupy Kim’s attention.
Kim is said to be “extremely nervous” about plans to assassinate him. The North Korean dictator has lately stayed out of public view for weeks at a time. He travels only at dawn, and then only in the cars of his subordinates. And he is obsessed with collecting information on the plots against him, real or imagined.
Kim’s personal bodyguards are from “Office Number 6,” part of the 100,000 strong Guard Command that protects the top North Korean elites. But apparently Kim does not think this is enough. The Asahi Shimbun reported that, earlier this year, the dictator imported almost a dozen former Soviet KGB agents to beef up his personal security and help counter the supposed American assassination plots.
Kim may have more reasons to seek KGB protection than just their professional reputation. Bringing in outsiders tells us that Kim does not fully trust his own counter-intelligence officials to get the job done. Indeed, one of the other reported Russian missions is to root out spies. But what kind of spies? North Korea is full of them. Counter-intelligence is the lynchpin of the system, and is directed at all threats, foreign and domestic. When discussing a name for the World War II-era Soviet military counterintelligence service, someone suggested “Death to German spies.” Joseph Stalin memorably remarked, “Why just German spies?” Thus Smert’ Shpionam, or SMERSH, was born.
Former DIA official John Dziak coined the term the “counter-intelligence state” to describe this totalitarian mechanism of control. The total state is built and sustained on sowing distrust. Everyone is watching everyone, which keeps people in line for the most part. And when they stray, the party and secret police are on hand to help them back to the social norm, or to a gulag.
A purge may be coming. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reports that “North Korea has been conducting a large-scale campaign to sort out disgruntled citizens amid growing public fatigue over toughened international sanctions against the impoverished state.” Of particular interest were “those with criminal records or the jobless,” who were expelled from the capital, Pyongyang.
People like this may be seen as susceptible to recruitment by foreign intelligence services, but they are unlikely threats to Kim personally. They lack the means to be very dangerous on their own. North Korea’s mid- to senior-level party and military leaders, on the other hand, have the kind of insider knowledge that would be most useful to coup plotters or foreign assassins. They are a much greater threat than even an American drone. And they will be under increasing scrutiny as the dictator’s fears increase.
Kim can trust no one but he must rely on someone, and his Russian experts provide the personal and professional detachment needed to uncover threats that may be lurking close to the maximum leader. The fact that Kim has had to resort to outsiders to maintain power, however, tells us that he lacks trust in his own power structure. This, in turn, suggests that he may be weaker than he says. And with the sword of Damocles now hanging over their heads, North Korea’s anxious senior leaders may decide that they are better off in a world without Kim.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.