Hwang has replaced Choe Ryong-hae. Choe had been regarded as the North’s No. 2 man with his enormous clout in the National Defense Commission, the ruling Workers’ Party and the military ― a reason why observers said Kim might have felt the need to keep him in check.
“The execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s once-powerful uncle, and the dismissal of Choe ... all these underscore that there is only a No. 1 man in North Korea, and there is no such thing as a No. 2 man,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“Given that Hwang is not a figure with political ambitions, but a longtime party bureaucrat, well versed in practical affairs, Hwang is expected to be dedicated to strengthening the military’s ideological organization to help further consolidate the dynastic ruling system.”
Pyongyang confirmed Friday that Hwang, the first vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s organization guidance department, was appointed to lead the GPB, the most influential military institution.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency introduced Hwang as the GPB director while reporting on a Labor Day event on Thursday.
The confirmation came less than a week after Hwang was promoted to vice marshal, the country’s third-highest rank above four-star general.
“With Hwang taking the helm of the GPB, the heads of all three top military posts, including the chief of the military’s general staff and the minister of the People’s Armed Forces, have been replaced since Kim took power,” said Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the think tank Sejong Institute.
“I think as Hwang has dealt with affairs guiding the military politically, he is expected to lead the GPB without much trouble.”
Leadship of the GPB is regarded as the military’s most coveted position as the organization oversees core military personnel affairs, including promotion, position assignment and disciplinary action.
Signs of a change in the top military echelons were detected last Sunday when an article in the Rodong Sinmun, the daily of the Workers’ Party, put Hwang first on the list of top brass accompanying the North Korean ruler during his visit to a military training site.
While Hwang was repeatedly spotted accompanying Kim during the leader’s visits to military installations, Choe Ryong-hae’s public activities have been sharply reduced, sparking speculation about his health and the regime’s political stability.
Observers said that Choe might have stepped down from the top military post due to his worsening diabetes, or he might have been demoted to take a lower post.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said that although Choe resigned, the possibility was low that he had been purged.
“In the case of the purged high-level figures such as Ri Yong-ho and Jang Song-thaek, there were official announcements about their dismissals. But in Choe’s case, there has not been any official report about his dismissal in the North’s media,” said ministry spokesperson Kim Eui-do.
“On top of that, Choe was promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission recently on April 9.”
Hwang has risen up the military ladder quickly, indicating Kim’s high confidence in his loyalty. Hwang was promoted to three-star general in April 2011, less than seven months after he was given a two-star rank.
Early this year, Hwang was appointed as the first vice director of the ruling party’s organization guidance department and promoted to the four-star rank.
It remains to be seen whether Hwang will be able to fulfill his prodigious mission as the GPB chief, a position that requires strong leadership and charisma to maintain the 1.19 million-strong military.
But analysts said that the appointment of Hwang is expected to help further solidify Kim’s grip on power.
Choe, the previous GPB director, was seen as a staunch loyalist of Kim, but with his illustrious pedigree along with his leadership in the military, he was cited as a potential challenge to the dynastic ruler’s authority.
Choe rose up the political pecking order on the back of his father’s close ties with the Kim dynasty. His father Choe Hyon was a key member of the partisan guerrilla campaign against the Japanese colonialists in the 1930s that was led by the communist state’s national founder, Kim Il-sung.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)