For years, intelligence officials around the world have been watching a secretive office on the third floor of the Korean Worker’s Party headquarters in Pyongyang, North Korea. There, in Office 39, the country’s ruler Kim Jong-Un has continued his father and predecessor Kim Jong-Il’s practice of rewarding himself and loyalists in the military, intelligence apparatus, and government with lavish gifts ranging from cash to cars to cognac, intelligence officials and experts say.
Like his father, they say, Kim has maintained the family’s control over Office 39. Though it is one of the hardest intelligence targets in the most secretive nation on earth, U.S. and other intelligence analysts think he has assigned his sister and potential successor, Kim Yo-Jong, and her husband significant roles in overseeing the money that flows through it from a wide variety of legitimate and illicit activities to family bank accounts and government slush funds.
The officials and outside experts readily concede that with the exception of visible missile launches and flagrant airport assassinations, they are skeptical of intelligence on North Korea on its best days. But the information available from defectors and other sources indicates that Kim’s sister and her husband, by some accounts a son of the nation’s nominal head of state, have their hands on the office’s purse strings, U.S. intelligence officials say. That insight has become particularly relevant in recent weeks as Kim has been out of sight, prompting questions about whether Kim Yo-Jong could be next in line. Through her role in overseeing Office 39, “she effectively has control over one activity that is central to regime survival,” says one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Ms. Kim has numerous ties to Office 38 and 39, from reportedly being married to someone linked to the office, to running components of the office in conjunction with her sister, Kim Sol-song,” North Korea experts Harry Kazianis, John Dale Grover, and Adriana Nazarko wrote in The National Interest on Feb. 24. Officials believe Office 38 handles the Kim family’s personal finances. “While the extent of her role in maintaining the office is not known, it is likely that due to her position in managing the Kim family, she plays some part in overseeing financial transactions that directly relate to the slush funds financing the regime.”