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[Newsmaker] Hwang Pyong-so: second-most powerful official in hermit kingdom

In a country where dictatorship has ruled for three generations, Hwang Pyong-so has been widely seen as the second-most powerful man in North Korea since its leader Kim Jong-un took power in 2012.

Having been promoted to the rank of vice marshal in 2014, Hwang was elected to be the new chief of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, a position considered the most senior in the military after the supreme commander Kim.

But even Hwang -- who is thought to be a key aide of Kim after forging close ties with his mother Ko Yong-hui -- has fallen victim to a high-profile political purge orchestrated by Kim. Anyone seen as a challenge to Kim’s leadership has been purged or eliminated, including his own half brother Kim Jong-nam, who was assassinated earlier this year in Malaysia.

According to South Korea’s top spy agency, Hwang was recently punished for his “impure” attitude as a result of the first inspection on the General Political Bureau in 20 years. Alongside Hwang, his top deputy, Kim Wong-hong, was also punished.  

Hwang Pyong-so(right)stands with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap
Hwang Pyong-so(right)stands with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap

“Given that the two (high-profile) officials were punished, the punishment of other officers below their ranks would have followed,” said Rep. Kim Byung-kee of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, who attended a closed-door meeting with the National Intelligence Service on Monday.

It was unclear whether Hwang was verbally reprimanded, dismissed or banished to a rural area. When asked about the scope of punishment, lawmaker Kim said he was not authorized to reveal “classified intelligence” obtained by the NIS.

The NIS told lawmakers that the purge was spearheaded by Choe Ryong-hae, who was the No. 2 man before Hwang, indicating a power struggle between the two.

Months after Hwang was promoted to the head of the General Political Bureau, Hwang replaced Choe in his last military capacity as first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. He retained the position even after the NDC was transformed into the State Affairs Commission in 2016.

The move also appeared to be Kim Jong-un’s efforts to restore the party’s control over the military, which was overturned by his father Kim Jong-il. He has prioritized the Korean People’s Army in the affairs of state and allocation of resources under the slogan of a “military-first policy.”

“It’s a traditional way of confirming the party’s superiority over the military (in North Korea),” lawmaker Kim said. “But, then again, it was not like an across-the-board purge and did not occur all over the military. It only took issue (with the two officials).”

By Yeo Jun-suk (