Speculation is growing over the political status of Choe Ryong-hae, who had been deemed North Korea’s second-most influential man, as his coveted military post was taken over by a newly emerged figure, though he still appears to boast formidable power in public.
The rise of Hwang Pyong-so, the new director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, sparked a flurry of rumors and analyses that portrayed Choe as the target of a new purge.
The announcement marked the latest in a series of personnel shakeups since the surprise execution of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of leader Kim Jong-un, last December.
|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) attends an Air Force event on Saturday in a photo released by the Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party, which shows Choe Ryong-hae (third from left), former director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, sitting next to Kim. ( Yonhap)|
But even after his replacement, Choe continues to accompany the erratic ruler on field inspections and other public outings within spitting distance as a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party. Usually in the country those ejected from power instantly vanish from public sight.
In a photo of an Air Force event on Saturday published by the Rodong Sinmun, a party mouthpiece, Choe was apparently seated next to Kim. Hwang, formerly the first vice director of the party’s organization guidance department and recently elevated also to vice marshal, was seen on the right of the first lady, Ri Sol-ju.
The seating arrangement defies conventional protocol for Pyongyang ― particularly given the presence of another party secretary, Kim Ki-nam, who is technically ranked higher than Choe.
Some experts including Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, say Choe’s replacement resulted from his failing health due to diabetes, rather than a purge.
Hwang’s promotion coincided with the dwindling public appearances by Choe, which has rekindled speculation about his political status and health, as well as the fierce power struggle within the top echelons of North Korea.
“The Rodong Sinmun image demonstrates that Choe has a standing that goes beyond the official ranking and the special trust of Kim,” Cheong said in a commentary.
“Some called Choe’s new position as party secretary a demotion, but this disregards the standing and influence that the position exerts.”
The focal point, Seoul officials and some experts say, will be whether Choe retains his enormous clout in the National Defense Commission, the Workers’ Party and the military, which others cited as a reason that Kim might have felt the need to keep him in check.
“We need to keep tabs on whether Choe remains vice chairman of the National Defense Commission even after being dismissed as director of the General Political Bureau,” ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters earlier.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org