North Korea's notoriously harsh secret police consists of vast and sometimes competing agencies that will pose a major challenge to any potential attempts at reform, a study said Thursday.
In a lengthy study of the workings of the ultra-authoritarian state, a rights group said that North Korea has maintained control through surveillance down to the most local level to crush anyone who dares to defy the leadership.
"The North Korean people suffer under a level of oppressive control few societies in the past century have had to endure," said Andrew Natsios, co-chair of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
The report was released as young leader Kim Jong-Un tightened his grip on power, taking the title of "marshal" as he becomes the third member of his dynasty to rule the nation often called the least free in the world.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said that the state security agencies have assisted Kim as he consolidates power, including through increased border surveillance and spying on marketplaces and telephone calls.
"Even if Kim Jong-Un wanted to reform North Korea's political system, he will come up against security staff intent on purging, arbitrarily arresting and meting out inhuman treatment to all those perceived as threatening to the Kim family's continuance in power," Roberta Cohen, another co-chair of the committee, said in a statement accompanying the report.
The study -- written by Ken Gause of the research group CNA -- said that North Korea had three main security agencies whose authority sometimes overlapped, meaning that agents sometimes spy on one another and root out any attempt at dissent.
One of the most obscure but also powerful institutions is the State Security Department, which the report estimated had 50,000 personnel nationwide who run prisons for North Koreans judged to hold unacceptable views.
The department has had no director since the late 1980s when its chief Ri Chin-Su died. The report said that late leader Kim Jong-Il was believed to run the department directly and that it was unclear whether Jong-Un has followed suit since he succeeded his father in December.
The most visible face of the North Korean state is the Ministry of People's Security, the national police force. The study estimated that the ministry had 210,000 personnel, whose duties included routinely stopping citizens for documents.
The secret police benefit across North Korea from neighborhood committees, often consisting of housewives, which meet weekly and send informants to both the department and the ministry, the report said.
State Security Department officers in each district "have all official documents regarding the residents, so they know everything about an individual's" life and history, a former agent was quoted as saying.
North Korea also has a third major agency to exert control, the Military Security Command, which is part of the armed forces and is in charge of identifying anyone seen as disloyal or plotting a coup.