The emergence of the donjus, a new group of powerful North Korean elites


Some Authors focused on the North Korean society (such as Andrei Lankov and Waldemar Dziak) tend to present the North Korean nomenklatura as a group of persons related to the Kim family and to the North Korean communist Party.

Unlike these brilliant and hard-working authors, I would like to demonstrate or at least to present a different view. I sincerely consider that there are two groups of core elites in North Koreas. The first one is attached to the historical structures of the North Korean system. The second one consists of a emergent group of elites which emerged from the post-famine system: the donjus (money master, don/돈 means money, ju /주means master also called as donjuteul). As a framework, I’m also convinced that the North Korean famine led to the emergence of this second group.

I do assume that the North Korean famine which took place in the mid 90’s as a key event in the North Korean historical and economical history. The North Korean famine (and to a lesser extent the collapse of the Soviet Union) led to many changes in the North Korean society. Due to these two facts, the population has to totally organize itself in new manners. The collapse of the Public Distribution System (until 2013) forced the population to adapt itself to a new economical and sociologial environment. During this time many of North Koreans had difficulties, they had no capital, no know-how, and finally many of them perished during the famine. Nevertheless a group of new elites (the so-called donju) emerged. The donju and a certain part of the population started to develop first micro-economic activities (such as shops, restaurants, hospitality services) and for the wealthiest individuals, developed Chinese North-Korean trade (중국/ 북한 무역 – jongguk/pukhan muyok) which were partially out of the control of the KWP.

The historical groups of North Korean elites consist of the following two sub-groups. The first one is related to the family of the Kims who are descending from the Paektu line (it takes its name from the place where was theoretically born Kim Jong-il – the father of Kim Jong-eun). The second sub-group consist of the the descendants of the followers of Kim Il-sung who fought with him during the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War. This group can be also defined as the defenders of Paektu line. This line is highlighted in various ways in the North Korean political press. For example, during the elections to the APS in February 2014, Kim Jong-eun was nominated as the candidate of the 111th district called “Paektu” [1], a disctrict localized next to the Mount Paektu. [2]. All of them are attached to the KWP and to the KPA. Further texts related to the stratification of the North Korean society and to the North Korean nomenklatura can be also found there.

See also below the modern group of North Korean elites

The new groups of elites that I want to present are the donju. These persons are partially attached to the historical group of the North Korean elites but also to the main North Korean clans who have access to foreign exchange and other forms of capital that remain unavailable to most North Korean population. However due to the nature of the North Korean corrupted system, they are able to be partially independent from the KWP and therefore to carry out large-scale economic projects (especially with foreign partners).

nouveaux riches de Pyongyang
Les nouveaux riches of Pyongyang – source:

These donju manage international trading companies, they do buy real estate (usually by purchasing several apartments built exclusively from Chinese materials) in the most exclusive parts of the largest cities (such as the districts of Chaehadong and Moranbong in Pyongyang or in Sinuiju). These donju invest in property and raw material companies. These donjus are also belonging to groups of elites who act as financial intermediaries in lending money at rates amounts to 30%. They are usually members of North Korean families living in Japan (the minority Chongryon). [5]The majority of them is however connected to the KWP but not based on the historical tie (I mean a direct connection to the Kim network).

In other terms, the donju members are not always descendants of the historical group of North Korean elites that I mentioned at the beginning of this text.


[1] Letter from Paektusan Meeting of Electorate of Constituency No. 111, “KCAN”, February 4, 2014.

[2] North Korea’s Royal “Mt Paektu” Bloodline, Vantage Point, Vol. 36, No. 3, March 2014, p. 43.

[3] Michael Madden, A Biography of Jang Sung-Thaek: The Juche Jump (Hey, Mr. Jang!), Parallax, vol. VI, No. 1, Fall 2009, p. 33.

[4] White Paper on Human Rights In North Korea, Korea Institute for National Unification, Seoul 2008, p. 161.

[5] .The ‘Money Makers’ of North Korea, “New Focus International”, 6 March 2013.

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