Is Kim Jong Un Really Hiring And Firing?

With claims that 31 senior political figures have been purged since Kim Jong Un took power, Luke Herman analyzes what may or may not have happened to the individuals that disappeared.
October 22nd, 2012
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Recent English-language reports in the South Korean media have discussed a South Korean lawmaker’s claim that 31 senior officials have been killed or purged since Kim Jong Un’s first public appearance in September 2010.  But what grounds were these claims made on and might there be other factors at play?

On Tuesday, Rep. Yun Sang Hyun, a member of the ruling conservative party in South Korea, said that,

“Kim Jong-un is purging senior officials who are becoming an obstacle to his grip on power, performing poorly or expressing their dissatisfaction, according to his needs.”

The lawmaker also released a list of the names, and possible reasons for their dismissal, in a press release.  But for some reason, it appears that only 28 of the 31 officials are identified by name in the article.

By splitting these elites up into categories, it appears that half of them named are ministers / state officials (14), followed by military officials (8), provincial officials (6) and party officials (1).

Among the possible remaining three are: Kim Rak Hui (Vice Premier), Pyon Yong Rip (SPA Secretary General), Jong Myong Do (KPA Navy Commander), Choe Sang Ryo (KPA Strategic Rocket Force) and Jon Pyong Ho (Secretary of the Politburo) (if any are missed, please feel free to list them in the comments section).

Rep. Yun goes into the alleged reasons the elites were purged or dismissed, with corruption being the most frequent.

Of course, the star of the show is Kim Chol, at the time of his death the Vice Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, who Rep. Yun says was executed by firing squad on “on charges of drinking and engaging in other entertainment during the country’s mourning period for the late leader.”

However, the more sensational version, which first appeared in March and for some reason has popped up again in recent days, is that Kim was executed via mortar, so that “no trace of him would be left behind”. But this latter version could just be one of those stories that people believe simply because it is  about North Korea.

It should be pointed out that some of the names on the list probably should not have been there in the first place.

Three of the military officials, Jo Myong Rok, Kim Chol Man and Ri Ul Sol, are there because they were removed from the Central Military Commission at the September 2010 Party Conference. But these men were respectively 82, 92 and 89 at the time of their removal. And Jo Myong Rok, a powerful Vice Marshal and First Vice-Chairman of the National Defense Commission, died a few months after the conference.

In contrast, Kim Chol Man and Ri Ul Sol still make appearances every once in a while, most recently in late July for a photograph with Kim Jong Un. Therefore, their removals were almost certainly due to age, not to any sort of falling out with Kim Jong Un.

It is important to note that a certain amount of turnover is natural within the North Korean ministries and provinces. This is not to say that none of the provincial and state officials were removed as part of the succession process; but to merely point out that, out of the 20 combined state / provincial officials, a certain amount of changes would have happened naturally, regardless.

More generally, as the Kim Jong Un succession process has unfolded, many analysts seem to jump at the chance to claim that everything the North Korean leadership has done (whether provocation-wise or personnel-wise) has been because of the succession.

However, just based on the sheer number of personnel changes that can be confirmed, there is clearly a great deal of turnover occurring within the North. This partly explains why the South Korean press goes into overdrive whenever someone disappears for even a month in the DPRK, as seen most recently with Minister of People’s Security Ri Myong Su.

The more important part of the story is probably going on much deeper beneath the surface, below the top leadership level, which only rarely gets reported on. For example, there were rumors in 2011 that younger cadres were being posted to city and county units of the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security, installing cadres that owe their careers to Kim Jong Un (and would be loyal in case of a split at the top).

In any case, the full list from Rep. Yun’s press release is below (including our guesses for the missing three names), along with their position at the time they were purged / killed.

List of Possible Purged / Killed

Possible:

  • Kim Rak Hui (Vice Premier)
  • Pyon Yong Rip (SPA Secretary General)
  • Jong Myong Do (KPA Navy Commander)
  • Choe Sang Ryo (KPA Strategic Rocket Force)
  • Jon Pyong Ho (Secretary of the Politburo)

Ministers / State Officials (14)

  • Ri Kyong Sik (Ministry of Agriculture)
  • Han Kwang Bok (Ministry of Electric industry)
  • Kim Pong Chol (Ministry of Commerce)
  • Ra Tong Hui (Ministry of Land and Marine Transport)
  • An Tong Chun (Ministry of Culture)
  • Pae Tal Jun (Ministry of State Construction Management)
  • Kim Hyong Sik (Minister of Coal Industry)
  • Kim Thae Bong (Minister of Metal Industry)
  • Pak Su Gil (Vice Premier and Minister of Finance)
  • Ri Thae Nam (Vice Premier)
  • Ri Kwang Gon (President, Central Bank)
  • Ri Ja Bang (National Science and Technology Committee Chair)
  • Pak Myong Chol (Minister of Physical Culture and Sports) (October 2012)
  • Ho Thaek (Minister of Electric Power Industry)

Party (1)

  • Hong Sok Hyong (Secretary and Director, WPK Planning & Finance Department)

Provincial (6)

  • Han Hung Phyo (North Hamgyung People’s Committee Chair)
  • Ryu Hyun Sik (South Hamgyung People’s Committee Chair)
  • Choe Ki Ryong (Jagang People’s Committee Chair)
  • Ju Yong Shik (Jagang Chief Secretary)
  • O Ung Jang (South Hwanghae People’s Committee Chair)
  • Roh Pae Gwon (South Hwanghae Chief Secretary)

Military / Security (8)

  • Ryu Kyong (Vice Minister of State Security)
  • Ri Yong Ho (Chief of the KPA General Staff)
  • Ju Sang Song (Minister of People’s Security)
  • Kim Chol (Vice Minister of People’s Armed Forces)
  • Kim Chol Man (Member, Central Military Commission)
  • Ri UI Sol (Member, Central Military Commission)
  • Ri Ha Il (Member, Central Military Commission)
  • Jo Myong Rok (Director of the KPA General Political Bureau)

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Picture by KCTV