North Korea has had, for more than a decade, growing problems with loyalty and obedience. Several major efforts have been made to address this and none of them have solved the problem. Growing poverty and access to information about much greater affluence in China and South Korea have even well-off North Koreans reconsidering their loyalties. Even the secret police and senior bureaucracy have become “corrupted” with incorrect thought. So now North Korea is going to reexamine who can be trusted. To do that the government is revising one of the fundamental social structures. Everyone is going to be checked for loyalty and, when needed, the social caste (songbun) they were born with will be changed.
One of the events that triggered this fundamental change was another reform, instituted several years ago. This program recruited an elite group of agents who would be sent abroad. Membership in this elite group was only open to members of the hereditary elite North Korea families. The children of these families are eligible to attend the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy. Graduates of Mangyongdae are most likely to get the most senior government and military jobs. There are only about a hundred graduates a year and, for the last few years, a computer science program has provided a specialized course for Mangyongdae students seeking to become foreign agents in “enemy” countries, especially South Korea. These agents are trained to hunt down high-level defectors in foreign countries and either arrange to kill the defector or at least find out how the defector is doing, how many secrets they have divulged and, if possible, persuade the defector to shut up or even return to North Korea. To accomplish this the Mangyongdae students are taught the latest hacking techniques, what tools and mercenary hackers are available in the hacker underground and how to use the tools, and the mercs, to put together specialized efforts to track down defectors and monitor them. This means the Mangyongdae must be able to pass as South Korean, as in speak with a South Korean accent, know the customs and slang, and assume a false identity convincingly.
As important as all these skills are the most important item is loyalty to North Korea. The Mangyongdae agents go after the growing number of high-level North Koreans who are illegally leaving the country. The agents are trained to use social media to seek out known or suspected defectors, make contact and obtain more information about them. In the process of screening so many high caste North Koreans for this critical job, it became apparent that many of these children of the well-off elite were not as loyal to North Korea as believed. There were other indicators of this such as these high caste children already adopting a South Korean accent and appearance, This was not done in preparation for a career as a secret agent, but because these well-off young men and women admire South Korea. Such admiration and imitation is illegal in North Korea but the children of the elite know that the police will avoid bothering them unless given direct orders to do so. This aberrant behavior had been noticed by senior leaders, who dismissed it as youthful experimentation. After all, supreme leader Kim Jong Un had spent much of his youth in the West and adopted many of the habits and mannerisms of what he now calls “decadent foreigners.” When called on by his father, the second Kim to rule North Korea, he obeyed and emulated his father by keeping his tastes for Western luxury living in the background while playing the part of a stern and austere ruler. Kim thought many children of the elite were emulating him. That was not the case and the evidence collected from the interviews for the secret agent jobs made it clear that the caste system was no longer a reliable way to keep track of who was loyal.
Over the last decade, Kim Jong Un has been growing more concerned about key people defecting to South Korea or simply getting into China and making asylum deals with the Chinese government. The Chinese have always been receptive to such arrangements and there have been more of this as the hundreds of families at the top of the social pyramid in North Korea get out. This is a risky endeavor although there are more and more people smugglers who, for enough money, can get anyone out of the country. Worse, many high-level defectors were already outside North Korea on official business when they arranged to disappear and defect. Some of these defectors have been diplomats and some of them were senior enough to be noticed when they disappeared.
These high-caste North Koreans report to foreigners that there is a sense in the ruling families that the system isn’t working and is doomed. The top people in North Korea are easy to identify. When North Korea was founded in the late 1940s the songun caste system was established to ensure that the most loyal and capable North Korean communists were recognized and rewarded for their efforts to maintain the new communist government for now and generations to come. The newly established secret police and communist party reported on everyone making it possible to create an official list of every family assigned to one of 51 social classes. From the beginning, most (29) of these classes were composed of people considered either hostile to the government or leaning that way. These new lower classes are where most of the new (and often quite wealthy) donju (entrepreneurs) are coming from. Most of the population falls into these 29 social classes, and they are getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another. Members of higher-caste families are catching on as well and younger members are increasingly abandoning promising careers to flee the country. All that bribe money making its way to the higher caste North Koreans doesn’t just go to buy an easier life in North Korea, it often buys an escape. To deal with this problem among the most trusted classes a special program at the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy counter-intelligence program was established. Apparently, some of the Mangyongdae agents have been identified or even caught and this program is no longer as secret as it once was. Meanwhile, the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Academy and its ultra-loyal students get a lot more publicity inside (and outside) North Korea.
In addition to tracking down high-caste defectors, the Mangyongdae level agents are also assigned to monitor the loyalty of North Korea hackers working outside North Korea. North Korean defectors have revealed much about how North Korea has managed to establish and maintain hacking operations outside North Korea and make a lot of money for the cash hungry North Korea leader. This became a higher priority operation in the last few years because of the growing list of economic sanctions imposed. At the same time, there were more opportunities for Internet based misbehavior. Some of these defectors were associated with the North Korean hackers who are, it turns out, mostly based outside North Korea because Internet access is better while operating outside North Korea makes it easier to deny that North Korean hackers are engaged in illegal activity. South Korea has obtained a lot of details about the North Korean hacker operations and even allowed some defectors familiar with those operations to speak openly about it. Obviously, many of these North Korean hackers are not as loyal as they are supposed to be and something much be done to identify and punish the ones that defect and expose how the hacker program works.
The Mangyongdae agents are also trained in the usual methods of secretly contacting “the center”, usually via North Korea operatives based outside of North Korea and able to relay messages to and from North Korea itself. The skills North Korea hackers have developed are world class and increasingly difficult to counter or even detect. But this edge in skills and techniques depends on having loyal operatives in key positions, thus the importance of the Mangyongdae agents.
The Mangyongdae agent reports made it clear that the traditional caste system was not working and it became obvious that North Korea would have to do what China had already done, establish a “social value” system that is applied down the individual level. North Korea has not got the tech China uses to constantly monitor all Chinese and automatically raise or lower scores. But North Korea can afford a one-time revision of who belongs in which of the 51 songbun castes and move on from there. This is not a solution to what ails North Korea but it will be interesting to observe.