The alleged removal of the North Korean leader’s powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek put the spotlight on Choe Ryong-hae, who is believed to be Jang’s rival and to control the country’s military.
Choe is a vice marshal of North Korea’s military and the chief of the General Political Bureau, a powerful military organ under the direct control of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Without Jang, Choe, a loyalist of the Kim dynasty, is considered to be in an unrivaled position, with his level of authority overshadowed only by that of Kim Jong-un.
Some speculate that Jang’s downfall may be the result of his long-standing power struggle with Choe.
Choe’s family is part of the North Korean power elite. He is a son of Choe Hyon, a prominent partisan revolutionary who fought against Japanese colonialists alongside North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung.
After the 1945 liberation, Choe rose within North Korea’s military and played a major role in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Choe is supported by a tight group of close associates who have risen to key posts within the military after the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011.
Both Jang Jong-nam, the minister of the People’s Armed Forces, and chief of the Korean People’s Army Ri Yong-gil are said to be part of a group referred to as “Choe’s men.”
In terms of family prestige, being a descendant of an anti-Japanese partisan revolutionary is second only to being a member of the Kim family in North Korea, Sejong Institute senior research fellow Cheong Seong-chang wrote in a recent column.
Due to his lineage, Choe grew up in close proximity to the Kim family and developed close ties with Kim Jong-il and Kim Kyong-hui, the current North Korean leader’s father and aunt, respectively.
According to Cheong, Choe’s relationship with the two brought them close enough to allow him to call the two elder Kims brother and sister.
Although Choe may be the second most powerful man in Pyongyang for now, experts say that such a status does not protect him from being removed as easily and quickly as Jang Song-thaek was.
According to Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, purges allow dictators to maintain their grip on power as long as they remain a “random or low probability event.”
By Choi He-suk