Green Room

O Kuk-ryol: The Power Behind the Throne

posted at 6:24 am on June 3, 2009 by

Recently rehabilitated, North Korean General O Kuk-ryol has had a busy decade, and has emerged as the power behind the throne in North Korea.  In a nation where proximity to power matters far more than anything else, being a major player with long ties to the Dear Leader , as well as having practical experience, counts for everything.

This is a photo released by North Korea in April, showing North Korean General O Kuk-ryol.

He vanished from public view in the early 1990’s, ostensibly being sent out to the provinces for socialist re-education after an alleged  disagreement with former North Korean Great Leader, Kim Il-sung.  One of the few North Korean leaders who has a long friendship with present Dear Leader, Kim Chong-il, General O was for many years the favored up and comer among the younger North Korean elite.   He was largely resented by old-school, Kim Il-sung favorites, since the young upstart O Kuk-ryol had not been one of the original band of brothers who fought the Japanese nor was he a participant in the Korean War…in essence, according to the older Kim Il-sung loyalists, O Kuk-ryol had not properly made his bones.  Once the Great Leader shuffled off his mortal coil, Kim Chong-il moved quickly to ingratiate himself among the younger military officers, including O Kuk-ryol.

O Kuk-ryol first came to public prominence after serving with a detachment of North Korean Air Force pilots who happened to be in Cairo as part of a secret training mission to the Egyptian Air Force when the 1973 Arab-Israeli War broke out.  North Korean pilots in Egyptian MiG-21’s flew round the clock Combat Air Patrols over the Egyptian capital, preventing the Israelis from inflicting major damage to key Egyptian airfields around Cairo and also were credited with downing a number of Israeli aircraft during that war.

The Egyptian government paid North Korea to build a truly unique military museum in Cairo commemorating the “victory” of the October 1973 War, a panorama museum styled after the original in P’yongyang, so appreciative was the Sadat government of  O-Kuk-ryol and fellow North Korean pilots’ heroic defense of the Egyptian capital.

O Kuk-ryol emerged from that 1973 war as one of the few North Korean heroes who had experiences in the West…something that is no small matter when it comes to internal North Korean politics and the paranoia of Kim Chong-il.  For a while he was the head of the North Korean Air Force, and was responsible for North Korea obtaining then-modern Soviet aircraft to replace the aging fleet of MiG-19’s, MiG-17’s and MiG-21’s which made up the bulk of North Korean frontline fighters.

In the 1990’s the Dear Leader purged almost all North Korean generals who had been trained in the former Soviet Union, as he had grave doubts about their loyalty after being exposed to the now-corrupt former Communist turned capitalist state.  O kuk-ryol, apparently survived this purge.

This photo, taken in the 1980’s, shows O Kuk-ryol at the peak of his popularity in North Korea.  General O is related to the former North Korean Defense Minister, O Chin-u, a staunch Kim Il-sung favorite, who was a major protector of Kim Chong-il among the North Korean military, and Kim Chong-il, at the time before the Great Leader’s death, was viewed as incapable of running North Korea, so widespread had the younger Kim’s proclivities become known all across North Korea.

The Dear Leader Kim was able to consolidate power among the military and the party elites before his father’s death in July 1994, and moreso after, and his old childhood friend, O Kuk-ryol, played an important role in that effort.  Sometime in the early 1990’s, despite his close relationship with Kim Chong-il, General O disappeared from public view, rumors that he had insulted the Great Leader by challenging the older Kim’s ideas for the restructuring of the North Korean military were cited as the main reason for his disappearance.  In essence, O Kuk-ryol had vanished from public sight…feeding the rumors.  O Kuk-ryol may have used this ruse to provide cover for more important and far more sensitive operations in the service of the younger Kim.

It would appear that General O Kuk-ryol was merely being assigned to other tasks, which required secrecy, to include his part in the now famous “C-Note” counterfitting operations, which saw North Korea producing the most excellent copies of US $100 bills, an operation which led directly to the new style printing of US currency. North Korea has long been engaged in producing fake US currency, so much so that the Secret service has dedicated an entire branch to tracking these highly skilled reproductions of US currency.  The Bush Administration had declared that Macau-based Banco Delta Asia was the major outlet for hundreds of millions of dollars of fake banknotes.  Sanctions followed, but were relaxed after North Korea demanded that this bank be re-opened before further progress in the six-party talks could continue.  There is no reliable estimate of the amount of fake currency produced by North Korea, though according to various press reports, it is in the hundreds of millions, perhaps, billions of dollars.

North Korean diplomats assigned to Moscow, among other East European capitals, have been engaged in passing the fake notes, used most often to pay for official expenses, airport landing fees, and a host of other expenditures for which North Korea simply did not have legitimate cash to cover.   In 2006, Sean Garland, chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army was implicated in a complex operation to pass these fake North Korean C-notes across Western Europes…and rather successfully for a while until his indictment.

O Kuk-ryol was assigned to head up the Operations Bureau of the Korean Workers Party [the NK’s CIA].   In this capacity he oversaw a number of North Korean covert programs.  General O Kuk-ryol’s directing of the fake C-note effort led to other more sensitive posts, such as engaging in ties with the former Pakistani nuclear guru, A. Q. Khan, and according to some rumors, extending ties to Iran and other less-savory nations and allowing him to further his close ties with the Dear Leader, Kim Chong-il.

In April 2009, North Korea announced the new membership of the National Defense Commission, with Kim Chong-il’s childhood friend,  O Kuk-ryol, fully rehabilitated, as Director of the Operations Department  of the Korean Worker’s Party, now apparently a military function, leading one to believe that some sort of military collective leadership is assisting the Dear Leader in maintaining power.

What is most important about General O Kuk-ryol is his long-held desire to build a military force for North Korea that is on par with those of the West.  General O realizes that fighting a war along the lines of the Korean War of fifty years ago will destroy North Korea, and there will be no Chinese “volunteers” standing across the Yalu ready to flow into North Korea to pull Kim Chong-il’s bacon out of the fire this time around.  Only by building a military structure and with modern weapons, to include nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, can North Korea be successful in preventing North Korea from being crushed by the United States and other nations of the West.  North Korea has limited funds, a lack of access to western financial markets, thus when North Korea expends limited funds for military activities such as nuclear detonations and numerous missile tests, it is a strong indicator of the importance North Korea holds for building a top notch, by North Korean standards, military machine.

As Kim Chong-il’s health plummets, there is limited time to build up North Korea’s ability to defend itself and to project power in the region.  General O Kuk-ryol will be instrumental in building that modernized armed force and also will be instrumental in shepherding the transition of power from Kim Chong-il to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, which would continue the family dynasty to the third generation, and the recent spate of missile tests and detonations of nuclear devices meant for both domestic and foreign audiences will enable such a dynastic succession to be made without a domestic reaction to the furthering of family power politics in the hermit Kingdom.

Look for more of General O Kuk-ryol as the months progress.

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Excellent reporting here CW! You bring a dynamic to the GR that is unique to your experience. Bravo…

Keemo on June 3, 2009 at 7:47 AM

Really fascinating stuff, Coldwarrior! I never heard the story about the memorial in Egypt before. Every Korean immigrant of my acquaintance thinks we should be much more concerned about North Korea than we seem to be.

Doctor Zero on June 3, 2009 at 9:46 AM

very interesting…

they will bury us…

right4life on June 3, 2009 at 2:56 PM

Amazingly interesting and well-written Stuff.

I heard a ‘don’t repeat this rumor’ in the 80s about North Ks flying missions during the 73 Arab-Israeli War, but supposedly it was only a limited number of recon / ‘backup’ missions over Egyptian cities.

If the situation was as you say, the North Ks must have been there in large numbers in advance, and fully integrated into the Egyptian military command structure.

Another ‘rumor’ was that the North Ks were there in Angola and Mozambique in the 70s, along with several thousand DDR “advisers” and 30-40,000 overt & obvious Cuban army troops.

The Cold War wasn’t actually cold at all; not even close to frosty……..

Janos Hunyadi on June 3, 2009 at 3:32 PM

Very interesting read. Thanks for the history lesson!

Aggie85 on June 3, 2009 at 4:02 PM

I felt like I was in some briefing room at an agency while reading this.

blatantblue on June 3, 2009 at 5:23 PM

Thank you, CW, for furthering my education.

OldEnglish on June 3, 2009 at 6:28 PM

Handsome devil!

You, too, I’m sure, CW. Thanks as always.

CK MacLeod on June 3, 2009 at 9:52 PM

Only just saw this … somehow I missed it when you posted it. Thank you. Very interesting. The world is such an untidy and complicated place.

Is NK still friendly with Arab states? I guess they have no reason not to be, and I was only half joking in a post I made a couple of days ago about the NKs selling nuclear weapons to Saudia Arabia.

Do we know what happned to the 1990s purged officers? Sent to the farm, sent to jail, or sent to ‘sleep’.

And do we know what China’s attitude to Banco Delta Asia is? I would have thought the Chinese government wouldn’t be too happy with the prospect of fake US currency since they apparently own such a lot of the real stuff.

YiZhangZhe on June 4, 2009 at 7:05 PM

YiZhangZhe on June 4, 2009 at 7:05 PM

Is NK still friendly with Arab states?

Not as explictly as it was during the Kim Il-sung period. The emergent revolutionary Third World was one of his favorite themes.

Under Kim Chong-il far less so. The reason? Money. They have it. NK does not. The NK model means little to the bulk of the Arab states. Too many influential Arab leaders and professionals who have graduated from the London School of Economics to allow for any of the major Arab states to grab hold of the North Korean economic model, let alone political model. That said, from time to time, if politics and money merge, such as the case of Syria’s building a North Korean nuke facility (not being able to obtain such from Western or former Soviet sources) or Libya’s toying with NK years back (that being under a far more radical Qadaffi) the fact that NK is willing to offer arms and such at a very cheap price makes this sort of thing a constant worry.

But most Arab states have found that while support for Palestine and being anti-Israel is one thing, being an active player in any sort of North Korea-Arab game is far less probable. The bulk of foreign embassies in P’yongyang are from African and Arab states. Some as small as a visiting Ambassador from Beijing once a month. North Korea has little if anything to offer most Arab states. They can buy military hardware from more reliable European sources at an overall better cost and for more efficient proven systems than they can by buying North Korean. In particular, if an Arab state is found to be buying from North Korea, their usual sources may cut them off…Boeing and General Dynamics have ready buyers in the region…and the Arab states have built a deep relationship over the years with US and Euro arms sources. They’d be a bit nuts to hazard this long-term arrangement to buy a cheaper less-reliable product from North Korea…except for long-range missiles…and nukes. Would the Saudis buy from North Korea? Only under the most extreme of circumstances.

North Korea’s relationships with non-state jihadists, and “revolutionaries” in particular? Was some evidence of this in the 90’s, less so today. That it is not in the public fora does not mean, however, that such does not exist. Come up with a smoking gun on this one and you can make quite a name for yourself.

Iran? Not an Arab state, but it does have one of its largest embassies in the world located in P’yongyang, and the level of NK-Iran interaction across the board is widespread.

The 1990’s purged officers? Most were sent home, a few remained in P’yongyang, others were sent out to the provinces. Rumors of several being shot following an alleged aborted coup against Kim Chong-il have surfaced from time to time.

China officially has no reason to turn a blind eye to Banco Delta Asia. They tolerate a lot of Kim Chong-il’s antics since they can use NK as a power wedge when they need one. While they are the lifeline for North Korea, they also have no real control over what NK does. NK having a deployable nuke capability worries Beijing, but Beijing for the present believes that NK is no threat to them. As a larger threat in northwest Asia, perhaps. Hence their active participation in the six-party talks over the years.

One of the large questions is whether or not NK is developing longer range missiles and nukes to use themselves, or to enhance their export market. Military hardware and cement seem to be the main exports from the Hermit Kingdom. Not a lot of other things they produce have a market overseas. This has been the case for well over a decade.

If it comes down to it, most Korea watchers seem to believe that if the price is right and NK has an immediate need of cash, they will sell whatever they have to get that necessary influx of cash. Thus, will NK sell another nation nukes? Probably, if the price is right. Will NK sell a non-state actor nukes or long range missiles? Not likely, but not impossible, either.

coldwarrior on June 5, 2009 at 12:50 AM

coldwarrior on June 5, 2009 at 12:50 AM

Thank you.

YiZhangZhe on June 9, 2009 at 5:41 AM

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