The New King’s Hand: Change in the Court of the Great Successor

By | May 06, 2014 | No Comments

Choe Ryong-hae back in his military daysi | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Choe Ryong-hae back in his military days. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

The importance of authoritarian power consolidation and the intrigue of court politics garners the attention of many Pyongyang watchers. Unfortunately, a dearth of sources and the difficult task of independently verifying “facts” about events in North Korea leads many to employ a dangerous mix of guesswork and navel gazing. This combination of equally error-prone activities has a tendency to feed the sensationalist wheelhouse: deaths by flame-throwers and packs of hungry dogs. But even for those who know better, a lack of credible sources can breed false conclusions. This is precisely what happened with regards to Choe Ryong-hae’s temporary absence from the public scene. After the old and ailing (former) general was replaced by Hwang Pyong-so as the director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, the military’s top political officer, several were quick to suggest that “another purge” had occurred. This, it is now known, was a hasty conclusion, for Choe would reappear shortly after the announcement dressed in plain clothes. His “demotion” may well have been a matter of health, not politics. 

Purge or not, “the rise of Hwang” indicates to those on the outside that a reshuffling within the elite inner circle is afoot. And this, despite all the information limitations, will rightfully attract the attention of the entire North Korean watching community. Nick Miller looks back at what has been said over the last few weeks about elite politics, power consolidation, and Hwang’s promotion. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor 

The New King’s Hand: Change in the Court of the Great Successor

by Nick Miller

Over the past two weeks, North Korea watchers have observed more shuffling in Kim Jong-un’s inner council. The most high profile was the disappearance of Choe Ryong-hae, one of Kim’s main supporters, who rose to prominence after the purge of General Ri Yong-ho in the summer of 2012 and is said to have assisted in the removal of Kim’s mentor, Jang Song-taek, late last year. KCNA reported that the Central Military Commission (CMC), the top decision-making body within the Korean People’s Army (KPA), held a meeting on April 27 chaired by Kim Jong-un in which “organizational issues” were discussed, and that Kim was concerned with “political affairs.” What made this announcement unusual is that the most recent meeting of the CMC had occurred scarcely a month prior. It is not a normal occurrence for two such high-level meetings to happen practically back-to-back.

By that time, Choe had not been seen in public since April 11, when he attended a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Suspicions were raised further when he did not attend a rally for fighter pilots in Pyongyang on April 15, or on the 82nd Anniversary of the KPA on April 25.

One of the more intriguing rationales for Choe’s disappearance to have surfaced was a report declaring that Choe’s father, Choe Hyon, was the real leader of the Korean independence movement against Japan, rather than Kim Il-sung. In the DPRK, such historical narratives and allegories are taken extremely seriously, and should be considered quite sensitive terrain. Such a historical claim for Choe Hyon could have been a contributing factor in Choe Ryong-hae’s removal from North Korean politics, as this would be seen as a threat to the cult of personality narrative underpinning the Kim political dynasty. However, this is an unverified claim.

A New [Old] Hand: Hwang Rises | On April 15, 67-year-old Hwang Pyong-so was promoted to general. KNCA promptly ranked him higher then Ri Yong-gil, who had previously been surpassed only by Choe. Analyst Cheong Seong-jang of the Sejong Institute saw the move as either a sign that Hwang had replaced Choe, or that he was temporarily acting as military politburo chief, something that has since been confirmed.

Hwang had previously been first vice-director of the Organization and Guidance Department, and has since ascended to become director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA. He has been playing a public role as a close aide to Kim Jong-un for some time, and is believed to have played a part in Jang Song-taek’s ousting. One unnamed Chinese source told the JoongAng Ilbo that Hwang should be seen as a key power behind the throne after Jang’s purge, a view that is widely believed. Shortly after Hwang’s promotion to General, he was made a Vice-Marshal on April 26 and accompanied Kim Jong-un on more tours, all while Choe’s public appearances have dwindled.

Choe delivering a speech, back in a business suit after his removal from the KPA political department. | Image: KCNA

Choe delivering a speech, back in a business suit after his removal from the KPA political department. | Image: KCNA

Red Box, Blue Box: Potential Power Struggle | The aim of the KPA General Political Department is to keep the Party (leader) in control of the military through ideological indoctrination and surveillance. It seeks to ensure that the KPA serves as the “army of the party,” rather than vice versa, and does so by instilling absolute loyalty to the leader. This is done to reduce the risk of coup attempts emanating from military units.

Choe’s alleged detention in February, according to some prominent defectors, was because he had failed to ensure such loyalty to Kim Jong-un. Choe had also used the KPA to assist in civilian construction projects throughout 2012 and 2013, which is alleged to have caused friction between him and military officials, who saw these civilian projects as coming at the expense of military readiness. The GPD also plays a role in removing commanding officers and appointing new ones; this meddling in the KPA is unpopular, and probably further inflamed tensions between military elites and Choe.

Choe’s Reappearance: Ramifications | Initial reports, mostly in the English-speaking world, that Choe had been purged outright proved untrue. He resurfaced on May 2 when Chosun Central News Agency revealed that he had been moved to a secretarial position within the Workers’ Party and made an appearance alongside Kim Jong-un at Songdowon International Children’s Camp in Wonsan. He was listed fourth behind his replacement, Hwang Pyong-so, as well as Kim Ki-nam and Choe Tae-bok.

Debate continues over the cause of the demotion, however. Some believe Choe was moved simply to neuter his political influence, a classic Kim Jong-il era tactic. While technically a higher position, a secretarial role will give Choe limited clout in internal politics. Others point to more mundane causes.

Cheong Seong-jang sees it as an outcome of declining health. Choe is in his 70s, and his new position will grant him a much easier workload. Professor Yang Moo-jin from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul agrees. Further buttressing this claim is Choe Hyun-joon of the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Institute, who notes that Choe Ryong-hae’s promotion to vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission in April was a clear sign that he had not been and would not be purged.

Kim Jong-un and the gang in Samjiyon, November 2013. | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un and the gang in Samjiyon, November 2013. | Image: KCNA

Tea Leaves: Reading the Media | Choe’s declining influence could have started as early as November last year, when Kim Jong-un and a group of elite advisors visited Samjiyon, a place that is sacred in Kim Il-sung mythology and the struggle to free Korea from Imperial Japan. The timing of the visit came after two of Jang Song-taek’s aides, Ri Yong-ha and Jang Su-gil, had already been executed, and shortly before Jang himself was purged on December 8. On December 11, Rodong Sinmun published an editorial, “Long Shine the Rigorous March of Samjiyon,” which stated:

It was an eruption of his determination of steel to continue the march of the Korean revolution and a terrifying iron hammer on those who betrayed the revolution.

This is said to signify that during Kim’s visit he decided to carry forward the purge of his uncle. The cult of personality that surrounds the Kim family carefully sticks to the myth of the “lineage of Baekdu,” the royal bloodline that provides for Kim family dynastic rule over North Korea. This so-called Mt. Baekdu lineage was emphasized after Jang’s execution, with the North Korean media stressing:

No matter how much water flows under the bridge and no matter how frequently a generation is replaced by new one, the lineage of Baekdu will remain unchanged and irreplaceable.

Hideshi Takesada of Takushoku University in Tokyo asserts that purges and changes within the inner circle mark Kim Jong-un’s attempt to finally take total control over the deification of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, as he linked himself to Mt. Baekdu, thus giving himself a clean and ancient lineage.

Who is No. 2? | It is difficult to create accurate leadership charts for North Korean elites, especially during times of power consolidation. Finding the No. 2 person in power in North Korea is a problematic, conjecture-ridden exercise. The opaqueness and complexity of North Korea’s ruling class leads to much guessing and naval gazing. This leads some to disavow the guessing game. Dan Pinkston of the International Crisis Group and Park In-ho, editor-in-chief of Daily NK, are not alone in declaring that there is no such thing as a No. 2 in Pyongyang. Court politics is a dangerous game wherein political elites vie to outdo one another in their attempt to increase their political clout and the trust of a key Kim family member.

Internal movements may indicate that Kim Jong-un and his clique are attempting to re-assert Party influence over the military. Masao Okongi, professor emeritus in law at Keio University in Tokyo, believes that Kim will seek to consolidate his own regime by the 70th anniversary of the Worker’s Party, held on October 10, 2015. For now, however, Kim continues to lay the foundations of his own legacy. It is worth following Kim Jong-un’s level of success in shifting the power back into the hands of the Workers’ Party (i.e., his hands) and away from the military. The person who rises alongside Hwang is another thing to watch. Rumors of Choe’s outright purging were false yet again, of course, and that only highlights the difficulties inherent in this modern-day game of Kriminology.