O Kuk-ryol: The Power Behind the Throne
posted at 6:24 am on June 3, 2009 by coldwarrior
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.
Recently in the Green Room: