As North Korea struggles, a renewed focus on loyalty

Sources say the government is cracking down to ensure allegiance to leader Kim Jong Un.

As North Korea struggles, a renewed focus on loyalty

The part of the North Korean government that works to ensure leader Kim Jong Un’s directives are implemented is meting out more punishment as the country struggles under the strain of a poor economy and a recent COVID-19 outbreak.

RFA reported in July that leaders of North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department, which spreads the directives and teachings of Kim Jong Un, had held a lecture to push officials within the department to establish that, in the words of one source, “all party members are absolutely obedient to the party’s sole leadership.”

Several sources told RFA at that time that they were worried that the department would begin a crackdown on government officials nationwide.

Those fears have been realized, an administrative official from Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The tyranny of the Organization and Guidance Department is becoming increasingly severe,” the source said. “General officials and party members are trembling in fear because the officials of the department frequently dismiss and punish other officials and party members.”

The source, for example, said the department began a review for the city’s Orangchon Power Station construction project in August.

“The city’s organization department issued a ‘severe warning’ punishment to seven managers [of the project], … dating back to Kim Jong Un’s visit in July 2018,” the source said. “The department said that they did not properly secure the necessary manpower … to build the power station. Also, their ability to procure support materials was poor.”

The Organization and Guidance Department is also punishing local officials for how ineffective their quarantine initiatives were against the spread of COVID-19. North Korea had claimed to be completely virus free until finally admitting that the virus was spreading within its borders in April 2022. 

The country declared a “maximum emergency” in May, which lasted until Aug. 10.

“In last week's municipal emergency quarantine review session, managers of several factories and companies were punished for negligence in the quarantine,” the source said. 

“The reasons for the punishment were that there were a large number of COVID-19 fever patients during the quarantine period, and the managers did not properly prepare hand sanitizer and did not enforce mask-wearing directives for their employees,'' he said.

Punishments from the Organization and Guidance Department are marked on the managers’ permanent records and can affect promotion or commendations.

“All the party members are afraid of party punishment. In the past they did not punish officials as often as they do now,” the source said.

“An official at one company said, ‘I am sick and tired of being a manager. I am so done with this.’ It was heard by all the other officials around him when his punishment was announced. Even officials who have not been punished are not happy with the situation because the department thinks that punishment is the only thing that matters,” he said. 

Poor results on projects or government initiatives are not the only reason that the department is doling out punishments. 

Officials from the department visited every factory and company in South Hamgyong province’s eastern coastal city of Tanchon to conduct week-long ideological inspections into party members working there, a resident of the city told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“Three leaders of the party’s life guidance division in the city organization department visit a company for a week to examine the overall organizational life of party members, including political events, learning sessions and lectures, self-criticism sessions, and the execution of assignments,” the second source said. “There have never been so many party officials who have come down to each business office to conduct an inspection.

“Once the inspection by the city party organization department is over, punishments will follow. In the spring, three members of the Tanchon Water and Sewage Office were punished with regular and severe warnings,” he said.

The official scale of punishment increases from warning, to severe warning, to demotion from full party member to candidate member, and finally complete removal from the Korean Workers’ Party.

Membership in the party is seen as a status symbol that can also be a gateway to better housing, employment, education and food in the impoverished country

City party officials directly participate and provide guidance in weekly review sessions held at each party cell. They say it’s to guide, but it really is to monitor whether mutual criticism of the people attending the self criticism sessions is progressing properly,” he said.

North Koreans must use the weekly self-criticism sessions to confess ways that they have not been loyal to the government over the past week. Every citizen must attend either through their workplaces or their neighborhood watch units.

After confessing their loyalty shortcomings, it is customary for citizens to then criticize each other. Usually residents plan their responses beforehand merely to satisfy the requirement, and not be too critical of their neighbors, but the practice is meant to encourage North Koreans to root out disloyal elements among them.

The reason why the central party has recently tightened up its members is because loyalty to Kim Jong Un and trust in the socialist system are declining among the core class of party members,” the second source said.

“The decline of loyalty and trust among party members will not stop unless the difficulties of the people suffering from the hardships of living are resolved,” he said, referring to Korea’s depressed economic climate and general lack of food and other necessities.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.