Choe Ryong Hae not purged, but no longer No. 2

Kim's former second-in-command still around, but apparently changing role
May 3rd, 2014

Choe Ryong Hae, the former director of the KPA General Political Bureau recently replaced by Hwang Pyong So, has reappeared in public after a more than two-week absence. Choe appeared with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials during events at the Songdowon International Children’s Camp in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, on Friday, KCNA reported.

Choe, Kim’s de facto second-in-command for many months, was recently replaced in his primary post as chief political officer in the military by Hwang Pyong So, who appears to be the new number two man in Pyongyang. The changes, which included the promotion of Hwang to vice marshal, the same rank as Choe, took place during Choe’s second unexplained absence this year. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has suggested that Choe is suffering from health problems, also evident by the limp Choe was sporting in March.

The absences and position changes have led to speculation about Choe’s fate, including whether or not he’d been purged from the regime. He is widely considered to have been closer to Kim Jong Il and Jang Song Taek than to Kim Jong Un. But it appears now that Choe is not being purged so much as being gradually phased out of power.

It is not uncommon for the North Korean regime to relegate older officials to token positions of less real power. Choe was made a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission in April but subsequently lost his post in the KPA General Political Bureau. Choe’s appearance in civilian clothing instead of military uniform on Friday suggests a less active role in the military for him – though he probably retains his rank as a reserve officer. State media listed Choe’s name after those of Choe Thae Bok and Kim Ki Nam – whereas it was previously did so the other way around – suggesting he’s fallen below these two in the hierarchy.

Photo: Kim and Choe at Songdowon, May 2, KCNA

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About the Author

John G. Grisafi

John G. Grisafi is an analyst and Korean linguist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Having previously worked as an analyst for the United States Army in South Korea and studied Korean at the Defense Language Institute, he is now majoring in East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.