Kim Jong Un's Praetorian Guards Are Really A 100,000 Man Personal Army

The security we saw in Singapore is nothing compared to the immense personal security force that serves the Kim family back at home. 

Inter-Korean Summit 2018
Pool—Getty Images

There seems to be a real fascination with Kim Jong Un's security and how exactly he goes about his business while paranoid of assassination attempts and decapitation strikes from afar and from potential competition within his own circle of power. It turns out that Kim doesn't just have a Secret Service-like agency tasked with his protection. He has his own 100,000 man army with a stove-pipe command structure that reports directly to him. This elite unit is known as Guard Command.

Kim's personal protection unit, which is made up of the best that Guard Command has to offer, usually melts into the shadows during his appearances. But recently, members of a select offshoot of this special outfit have become something of an international sensation, as they have appeared running in unison alongside the Supreme Leader's Mercedes Pullman Guard armored Limousine on multiple high-profile occasions.

This human phalanx of fit North Korean commandos dressed in tailored business suits with earphone pigtails dangling from their heads definitely appears to mean business when it comes to defending their principal, but they also serve a major propaganda tool. The spectacle visually highlights Kim's near-sacred importance and the might of his sprawling security apparatus. 

Back home, Guard Command serves to protect the ruling family's interests throughout the country and includes a range of capabilities, as well as a large assortment of equipment used to carry out its unique missions. In the fabulous research document North Korea House Of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong Un, the Committee For Human Rights In North Korea describes Guard Command as such: 

The GC (Ho-wi Sa-ryeong-bu), which is also referred to as the Bodyguard Command, is responsible for the safety and welfare of Kim Jong-un, his family, and senior North Korean officials. Its origins begin in 1946, when elements of the 90th Training Command were made responsible for providing security for North Korea’s emerging leadership. It has been restructured several times. 

Since the 1990s, it has been growing in importance as the center of the regime’s Praetorian Guard. The GC numbers close to 100,000 personnel dispersed across the country in a number of battalions, regiments, and brigades. In addition to providing for the personal security of Kim Jong-un and other high-ranking officials, it conducts surveillance on high-ranking political and military officials. It also shares responsibility for the defense of the capital with the Pyongyang Defense Command and the Pyongyang Anti-Aircraft Artillery Command.

Located in Puksae-dong, Moranbong District, Pyongyang, the corps-sized GC is equipped with tanks, artillery, and missiles. It has several combat brigades stationed at the Kim family’s residences and other critical facilities throughout the country.

Various subunits within the GC's structure execute a wide variety of roles. These include maintaining and guarding the Kim family's palaces and shrines, controlling access to the Capital via checkpoints, providing medical care not available to any other North Korean in order to prolong the "Dear Leader's" life, and protecting other North Korean elites. A logistics group supports all these endeavors in a traditional sense but also procures the luxury items and consumables only available to the Kim family and the regime's top power brokers.

One unit, the Rapid Response Force, is made up of a couple thousand hardened soldiers with a fleet of armored personnel carriers and heavy weaponry who are dispersed throughout Pyongyang. Their sole responsibility is to counter a coup attempt at a moment's notice, by grabbing and holding strategic command and control and information facilities to ensure that the regime is not successfully overturned. 

Another unit focuses on communications and is likely the force that would convey Kim's nuclear weapons release commands if they were issued. It is described by North Korea Leadership Watch as such:

The Guard Command’s Security Department manages and monitors all telephone and Internet communications by members of the DPRK leadership. One section of the Security Department is tasked with meeting KCI’s communication needs (telephone, fax, Intra/Internet) to issue instructions and orders. In cooperation with the Ministry of People’s Security, the Guard Command’s Security Department also manages the personnel and technical maintenance of hardwired telephone and fax lines used by senior government, party and military leadership in Pyongyang and provincial capitals.

The Second Guard Department of the Guard Command works to protect Kim and his family directly and has some of the most capable troops in the entire order. They work directly with an even more select group of bodyguards that are part of the so-called Office Number Six, to coordinate Kim's personal protection operations. 

CHFRINK report

Office Number Six is made up of highly experienced GC operatives with at least a decade of dedicated service and provides the innermost protective circle around Kim Jong Un. They also provide a key administrative function—planning and executing the Supreme Leader's events and travel arrangements. The CFHRINK report describes this shadowy unit in detail:

The Office of Adjutants (Office 6) coordinates the protection of the Supreme Leader. It presumably liaises with the Guard Command and other elements of the internal security apparatus. Adjutants from this office accompany Kim Jong-un on his guidance inspections. According to one source, the adjutants form the inner circle of security around the Supreme Leader and are the only people allowed to carry guns in his presence. Under Kim Jong-il, this office had approximately 1,200 officers and soldiers, the size of a KPA battalion.

...

Office 6, which reports directly to Kim Jong-un’s Personal Secretariat through the GC, takes the lead in all of Kim Jong-un’s public appearances. It is responsible for the protection of the Supreme Leader at the closest range. As such, it provides security inside the first two layers of security in a seven-layer cordon every time the Supreme Leader travels outside of his Party headquarters or one of his residences.

In addition to providing physical security, which is the responsibility of the Bodyguard Department, Office 6 has a number of other functions. The Plans Department coordinates the Supreme Leader’s events in terms of the list of participants and the operational aspects of the protection plan. An editorial bureau attached to Office 6 is responsible for how the images and news of the Supreme Leader are crafted by North Korean media.

Here is a chart showing how Kim's security is organized for events:

CHFRINK report

In some ways, this arrangement is somewhat analogous to America's Secret Service Uniform Division and the President's Protection Detail, but in North Korea, the whole operation is highly militarized and operates on a much grander scale.  

North Korean State Media

Kim's guards have been seen wearing various military garb and carrying different weapons, but it is rare they make it into official photos released by the tightly controlled North Korean media. 

The SSD, or State Security Department, that is mentioned in the organizational chart above, doesn't have to do with Kim's personal protection primarily, but considering we are talking about the North Korean police state, their involvement in Kim's travel planning and protection during visits is worth noting. The CHFRINK report states:

SSD carries out a wide range of counterintelligence and internal security functions normally associated with the secret police. It is responsible for finding anti-state criminals—those accused of anti-government and dissident activities, economic crimes, and disloyalty to the political leadership. In addition, it runs political prisons and has counter-intelligence and intelligence collection responsibilities. It monitors political attitudes and maintains surveillance on people who have returned from foreign countries. Department personnel escort high-ranking officials, guard national borders, and monitor international entry points. The degree of fear it instills in the political security bureaus of the KPA, which have representatives at all levels of command, is uncertain. However, it occasionally takes actions against members of the elite.

The MPS, or Ministry of People Security, acts as the state police in North Korea, so their involvement with Kim's movements doesn't need explanation. 

Guard Command supposedly goes to North Korean highs schools to find the best specimens to fill out its ranks. According to defector Lee Young Kuk who was the personal bodyguard for Kim Jong Il for over a decade, well-proportioned bodies and the lack of scars are desirable features for candidates, and they must come from families with impeccable loyalty to the party dating back multiple generations. 

Training, which lasts years, includes smashing granite slabs on your chest with a sledgehammer, breaking light bulbs with a single finger, and crushing tiles with your head, as well as a lot of fairly brutal martial arts. 

CNN did an interview with Lee Yong Kuk, it stated:

Lee says he went through very similar training before he was considered fit to protect a leader. "It's tough training," says Lee. "But why do it? It's to build up loyalty. A handgun won't win a war and taekwondo serves nothing but the spirit, but it creates loyalty."

His training also involved more traditional methods. Target practice, physical, tactical and weight training, swimming and using a boat. But that's only part of the preparation.

A large part of the training, he claims, is ideological brainwashing. Lee says he was trained to believe Kim Jong Il was a god -- and that the only reason he was born was to serve and protect the "Dear Leader."

Lee noted that even with all his power, Kim Jong Il was an uneven and violent man that was struck with fear at all times:

He recalls "two faces" to the man, describing him as someone who could give out gold when he was happy, and death sentences when he was not. 

"When Kim Jong Il would arrive in his vehicle, 60- to 70-year old advisors would run away and throw themselves onto the grass. They had dust on their clothes but they wanted to hide from him," says Lee.

"They are scared because even when he was happy he would be rude and could chop off their heads. "He remembers a senior official who once used Kim Jong Il's private elevator and ashtray. When Kim found out, he sent him to a concentration camp, where the man died.

But his successor, the man now negotiating on equal footing with the U.S., is even more brutal according to the veteran bodyguard:

Lee knew the North Korean leader was cruel when he was serving him. But, he says, it was only after he escaped to South Korea, his new home, that he realized Kim was a true dictator, as his father Kim Il Sung had been before him, and his son and current leader Kim Jong Un is now. 

But he is worried that Kim Jong Un may be the worst of all. "Kim Jong Un ended up killing his uncle, who even Kim Jong Il could not kill," said Lee. "As power was handed down to the third generation, it became crueler. Kim Jong Un has created loyalty, but it is fake and based on fear." 

Regardless of who in the Kim family is crueler, the massive security apparatus surrounding the top echelons of the regime is a manifestation of what it takes to sustain a reclusive military dictatorship with a royal-like family at its pinnacle. And all of it costs gobs of money, which could be used to satisfy the basic needs of North Koreans, namely clean water, consistent electricity, and especially a steady diet of basic nutrition. 

Yet considering the closed society they come from, one in which the common man must be an idolator of the Kim family and the party they rule, as well as their extreme training, indoctrination, and not lack of distractions, North Korea's top bodyguards are no laughing matter and their dedication is likely among the most extreme on the planet. 

Guard Command's workload and repertoire seems to be on the precipice of a drastic expansion as Kim Jong Un's profile rises on the world stage. Just the idea of a "Young General" that travels outside of North Korea's own borders is a new concept, at least in the years since Kim Jong Un rose to power, and his father wasn't much of a globetrotter either as he hated to fly. But the unit was behind the impressive logistics ballet that brought the young ruler to Singapore for the historic, albeit hollow, summit with the American President. 

With all this in mind, we are likely to be seeing a lot more of the General Guard and Office Number Six's 'unique' capabilities, and they may even be descending onto Washington, D.C. in the not so distant future. 

While the Secret Service may be the best-known head of state protective unit in the world, and the Pope's Swiss Guard is certainly the most colorful, Kim Jong Un's force is by far the most expansive. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com