Why has North Korea’s WMD chief disappeared from view?

"When a senior official goes missing, Pyongyang watchers sometimes assume that the official has been purged"
August 8th, 2013
1

Pak To Chun, North Korea’s chief operating officer of its conventional and advanced weapons programs, has not made any reported or observed public appearances since early May.

Pak accompanied Kim Jong Un to a sports competition between public health workers on or around May 1, then slipped from the state media’s radar.

However, Pak’s absence was rather unremarkable because senior North Korean officials periodically slip away. His disappearance occurred during a period in which other members of the Korean Workers’ Party Secretariat such as Kim Phyong Hae and Kwak Pom Gi also did not make any public appearances; however, these other Secretariat members later resurfaced in early July, ahead of events marking the execution of the Korean War’s armistice.

PAK’S PRESTIGE PROJECTS

Earlier in 2013, Pak To Chun’s career saw its apex. In December 2012 North Korea successfully launched the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite using the Unha-3 carrier rocket.  While the satellite’s activity in low-Earth orbit is well below average, the December 2012 launch was a major accomplishment for North Korea.

In February 2013 North Korea conducted its third underground nuclear detonation. While external analysts bicker over the country’s actual nuclear capability, and as it remains unknown whether North Korea used plutonium or highly-enriched uranium, the February detonation achieved some unknown internal benchmark for success.

Ahead of these events, North Korea watchers saw Pak To Chun standing or sitting beside Kim Jong Un.  Pak was shown standing to Kim Jong Un’s left on the cover of Rodong Sinmun after the launch of the U’nha-3 in December. In a subsequent documentary film, Pak was seen accompanying Kim Jong Un around pre-launch tours of the facility where the rockets are finished.  Ahead of the nuclear detonation, Pak was one of several senior officials who attended a meeting with Kim at which the detonation was formally authorized.

After  both the launch and detonation, the relevant personnel traveled to Pyongyang for a series of events celebrating their accomplishments. Pak to Chun was prominent at these events, ushering Kim Jong Un around.

JUNE DISAPPEARANCE

Pak To Chun’s public absence became noteworthy during late June.

For five days, starting on June 18, Kim Jong Un conducted an inspection tour around Jagang Province. Kim was on Pak To Chun’s home turf; Pak is a native of Jagang Province and served as a secretary on the province’s KWP committee and from 2005 to 2010 was the party’s regional boss as its Chief Secretary.

From 2005 to 2011 Pak had attended every appearance in Jagang by late leader Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Un toured several factories whose products are critical to North Korea’s advanced weapons program, including component parts used to enrich uranium.

The youthful North Korean leader was looking at the things which Pak To Chun could claim as major advancements in the North’s strategic weapons and energy capabilities, advancements that happened under Pak’s direct supervision and were career accomplishments.

But for the first time since the late 1990s, Pak To Chun did not appear to have attended a visit to Jagang Province by North Korea’s supreme leader.

“When a senior official goes missing, Pyongyang watchers sometimes assume that the official has been purged.”

PURGE PROBLEMS

When a senior official goes missing, Pyongyang watchers sometimes assume that the official has been “purged.” However this can be a misleading and hasty pronouncement.

Senior officials may be assigned a special project which preclude them from attending public events or accompanying the supreme leader.

On other occasions a senior official, or an individual in his or her patronage network, has committed some venal or mortal transgression and the senior official has been sent away for re-education.

And yet, national holidays or major state events usually find the senior official returned to the line-up, if only temporarily.

This has not happened with Pak To Chun, who appeared at none of the events marking the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement.

The only possible exception is that a man who resembles Pak was seen riding in the back of a ZiL truck during the July 27 parade, at the head of a group of munitions industry managers and employees.

Interestingly, this man’s face was heavily pixellated (washed out) in state media coverage of the parade.  If Pak’s standing remained good enough to ride past the parade reviewing stand, why did he not attend any other events involving officials with equivalent ranks or positions?

There are several factors and circumstances around Pak To Chun’s disappearance from North Korean public life which bear further extrapolation.  For North Korean senior officials a temporary demotion, permanent dismissal from office or a simple failure to appear is typically due to an incalculable combination of reasons.

ILLNESS

According to an August 3, 2013 report in Yonhap, “in connection with this a possibility was raised that Pak To Chun might not have attended formal formal functions due to chronic disease.”

However, Yonhap’s analysis rules out the 69-year old Pak having a terminal or debilitating illness because a number of octogenarian officials, and those frequently rumored to be terminally ill, attended many events during the war anniversary.

The July 27 parade was attended by 88-year old National Defense Commission Vice Chairman VMar Ri Yong Mu and 83-year old Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium Honorary Vice President Choe Yong Rim.  Similarly, a commemorative photo session of Kim Jong Un with war veterans was attended by the oldest members of the North Korean leadership–Hwang Sun Hui, Marshal Kim Chol Man and Marshal Ri Ul Sol, who are all in their nineties.  

CORRUPTION

Corruption can sometimes involve major offenses such as embezzlement of money, misuse or misappropriation of financial assets, natural resources or construction materials, engaging in unauthorized foreign trade activity and unauthorized travel outside the country.

In some cases of corruption it is not necessary that the senior official have direct involvement, but the official is held to account for the actions of his or her subordinates, patronage network members of family members.

Former KWP Finance and Planning Secretary and Director Hong Sok Hyong was removed from office in June 2011 after investigations and audits revealed a variety of widespread corrupt activities by his underlings during his tenure as the Chief KWP Secretary of North Hamgyong Province.  Although Hong had no active involvement, the central party blamed him for the actions of his subordinates.

An anonymous source told Yonhap on August 4, that Pak To Chun may have been removed from office due to corruption.  The source said that “there is also a rumor that Pak has been recently dismissed because of personal corruption. Although we have to watch further, it is highly likely that he might disappear completely from the official arean, seeing that he was absent from all functions, including even the function of 27 July.”

“Pak’s problem may not have been due to the technical failures themselves, but in filing deceptive reports about technical progress or simply refusing to accept responsibility”

FAILURE TO LAUNCH

For two months, starting in March 2013, North Korea embarked on a series of military exercises and hostile media activity in response to United Nations Security Council sanctions against its February 2013 nuclear detonation and annual joint US-ROK military exercises. In mid-April, two Musudan intermediate range ballistic missiles were deployed to a test-launch site on the country’s east coast, possibly in Kangwon Province.

The Musudan IRBM has been regularly featured on transport-erector-launchers in North Korean military parades in 2010, 2012 and 2013, but was never test launched.

North Korea expert Dr. Alexandre Mansourov on August 6, 2013 linked Pak To Chun’s disappearance from public view as punishment for the Musudan IRBM’s aborted test launch saying, “In my judgment, North Korea aborted the planned Musudan test late April because of some technical glitches discovered in its untested missile system at the pre-launch stage.”

Mansourov noted that the Musudan IRBM test launch may have been canceled to avoid the same of embarrassment North Korea experienced after the Unha-3 crashed on April 13, 2012.  Despite the Unha-3 succesfully launching in December 2012, Pak To Chun may have been blamed for the first crash and whatever may have prevented a possible test launch of the Musudan IRBM.  Pak’s problem may not have been due to the technical failures themselves, but in filing deceptive reports about technical progress or simply refusing to accept responsibility (i.e. falling on his sword) for a lack of progress.

FACTIONS IN MILITARY INDUSTRIES

If Pak To Chun were held accountable for the aborted test launch of the Musudan IRBM or the April 2012 crash of the Unha-3 then Pyongyang watchers may wonder why Ju Kyu Chang, Director of the KWP Machine-Building Industry Department, retains his positions.

Ju attended a number of July 27 events and lined up as a top-tier leadership member when Kim Jong Un visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.

Another factor in Pak’s disappearance is the fate of Paek Se Bong, the last known Chairman of the Second Economy Commission (Second Economic Committee) which controls the network of factories, production shops, test sites that produce North Korea’s convention and advanced weapons.

Paek’s last observed appearance was in late August 2012, when he attended Kim Jong Un’s visit to the Korean People’s Army’s Exhibition of Arms and Equipment.

Since his appointment to the National Defense Commission and as SEC Chairman in 2003, Paek routinely attended national report meetings and sessions of the Supreme People’s Assembly, although his presence was not always noted in state media.  Paek’s disappearance from public view occurred at the same as the number of Pak To Chun’s appearances in state media began to recede.

It appears that if senior officials are being held responsible for technical deficiencies or a lack of progress in North Korea’s space and ballistic missile programs, the core leadership has blamed the manufacturing/production side of North Korea’s weapons community as represented by Paek Se Bong and Pak To Chun, and not the scientific experts responsible for R & D as represented by Ju Kyu Chang.

PARTY-ARMY SOLIDARITY

Since North Korea formally consolidated command and control over the research, development and production of its conventional and advanced weapons programs in the early to mid 1970s, North Korea’s core leadership has always had the sensitive task of balancing the power and roles of the Korean Workers’ Party (who research and produce munitions and weapons system) and the Korean People’s Army (who deploy the weapons and engage in practical field tests).

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il largely kept control over theoretical and applied scientific research, design and development, and production within the jurisdiction of the KWP.  Departments and offices subordinate to the party linked to relevant agencies and departments in the SEC, the Second Academy of Natural Sciences and the North Korean Cabinet.

The KPA’s research institutes provided analyses and technical input, conducted field tests and experimental detonations, contributed construction and logistics personnel, filed routine requests and reports and attended meetings which contributed to the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.  However policy and production control remained in the KWP and the National Defense Commission, not in the KPA.

Pak To Chun’s public disappearance may be due entirely to a reconfiguration in the daily operational management of the North’s military industries.

Two weeks after Pak To Chun’s last reported public appearance, Gen. Kim Kyok Sik was formally appointed Chief of the KPA General Staff.  The KPA General Staff’s has several subordinate bureaus which conduct field tests, contribute research and technical specification and submit weapons production orders through the NDC and KWP.  Since late 2012, Pak To Chun and Gen. Kim have switched the order in which their names are listed or called in North Korean state media.

Focusing only on the list of visitors with Kim Jong Un to Kumsusan, it appears that Gen. Kim gradually over took Pak in the lists.

“If Kim Jong Un has allowed senior KPA officials such as Kim Kyok Sik a more active role in weapons production, he has upset a delicate power balance that his father and grandfather worked very hard to maintain”

On the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s birth on February 16, Gen. Kim was listed at #4 and Pak at # 6.  Ahead of the KWP Central Committee plenum on March 31, with more officials in attendance, Gen. Kim was listed at #7 and Pak at #10.  On Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, Gen. Kim was listed at #4 and Pak was listed at #5.  On the official anniversary of the army’s foundation, Gen. Kim was listed at #6 and Pak at #8.

Gen. Kim has also been publicly associated with sales of weapons abroad and with maintenance contracts with foreign countries.

Two more salient examples of Gen. Kim’s involvement include his meetings and signing an agreement with a Myanmar military delegation in November 2008 (during his first tenure as Chief of the General Staff) and the discovery by Panamanian authorities of Cuban MiG-21s, SA-2 and SA-3 missile systems in the cargo hold of a North Korean commercial vessel.

The discovery of the weapons and seizure of the ship occurred a short time after Gen. Kim conducted an official state visit to Cuba.

If Kim Jong Un has allowed senior KPA officials such as Kim Kyok Sik a more active role in weapons production, he has upset a delicate power balance that his father and grandfather worked very hard to maintain.

 

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About the Author

Michael Madden

Michael Madden is an NK News Pro leadership specialist and the sole author and editor of the website NK Leadership Watch.

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