A septuagenarian former North Korean Air Force general credited for the country’s rapid missile development in recent years has risen to the regime’s No. 5 status, showed a photo released by Pyongyang’s state media on Wednesday.
The rise of Ri Pyong-chol’s status indicates that Pyongyang will push ahead with strategic weapons development, including testing of submarine-launched ballistic missiles later this year, according to North Korea experts.
The photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his entourage standing at the mausoleum of the state’s founder and Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung to pay tribute around the 26th anniversary of his death showed Ri in the front row along with three others -- Choe Ryong-hae, president of the North Korean parliament and first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission; Pak Pong-ju, vice chairman of the SAC; and Cabinet premier Kim Jae-ryong.
The standing or seating arrangements of North Korea’s top leadership in official events usually displays each person’s rank after its supreme leader Kim Jong-un.
Ri was elected in May as vice chairman of the central military commission of the North’s Workers’ Party, of which Kim Jong-un is the chairman.
The position had remained vacant since 2014. Choe Ryong-hae concurrently held the position for two years until 2014.
“Ri is the key figure who led the advancement of the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities, especially missiles, since he took office as first deputy director of the Munitions Industry Department of the Workers’ Party in December 2014,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies.
“Kim Jong-un has showed a tendency to prioritize performance in appointing top officials, and the rise of Ri suggests that the North will focus on advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities, as it has announced in December.”
Regarding possible military provocations by Pyongyang, Cheong said while the North can’t conduct nuclear tests soon because they no longer have the testing ground, it is likely to test SLBMs from submarines, which it hasn’t done yet, around Oct. 10, the founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party.
North Korea has often brandished its latest weapons capability around the party’s founding anniversary and other anniversaries related to its military and the Kim dynasty.
Yu Ho-yeol, professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, also said Kim’s appointment of Ri in key positions is in line with Kim’s style of promoting those who have accomplished what he wants.
“Ri has greatly contributed, through his official position or actual performance, toward making Kim maintain his power domestically and elevating his status externally, and is expected to contribute further.”
Ri was named a member of the Workers’ Party Politburo and director of the party’s munitions department in December, months after becoming a member of the SAC.
By Kim So-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org