Just a week after NK News reported on the public disappearance of Kim Jong Un’s wife, the South Korean press is reporting on the seeming departure of Ri Myong Su (pictured left), North Korea’s Minister of Public Security and a member of the Politburo. As a powerful ally of the late Kim Jong Il, the disappearance of Ri starting to raise eyebrows in South Korea as possible evidence of another purge.
Yonhap reports (link in Korean) that Ri hasn’t been seen since the 6th meeting of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly, though he was not publicly identified, and has not been mentioned in an article since appearing with Kim Jong Un on August 25th. Meanwhile, a subordinate, Ri Pyong Sam, the Director of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces Political Bureau, as well as an alternate member of the Politburo, accompanied Kim on October 14th, and was also present when the People’s Security University was renamed Kim Jong Il People’s Security University on October 6th.
But while the South Korean press is salivating at the thought of another Ri Yong Ho-type situation, there is likely less here than meets the eye. A North Korea expert who wished to remain anonymous remarked that “As far as I know, Ri Myong Su still has his job, but is otherwise engaged.” The evidence, based on appearances with both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un seem to bear this out. While Ri was one of the most frequent accompaniers of Kim Jong Il from around 2001-2010, they have been much more infrequent since he acquired the post of Minister of People’s Security in April 2011. In fact, the current public absence is not even Ri’s longest – that was a nearly four-month stretch from December to April earlier this year.
What about Ri Pyong Sam’s apparent rise? Both recent events could easily have innocuous answers. The October 14th event was attended by alumni of two revolutionary schools (Mangyongdae and Kang Pan Sok), and Ri Pyong Sam is likely an alumni of one of the two whereas Ri Myong Su is not. And as for the renaming ceremony, Ri Myong Su may have simply been busy and his deputy / subordinate went instead. In the end, this situation will likely end much like Kim Kyong Hui’s, where a prolonged absence led to rumors about her health being in poor shape…until she returned to the public spotlight shortly afterwards.
However, the security services will continue to receive great attention in the weeks and months ahead. A Yonhap article (link in Korean) from earlier this month quoted an unnamed source in Seoul who speculated that public security would get tougher in anticipation of possible social destabilization when economic reforms are undertaken. According to the article, the aforementioned renaming of the Public Security University is likely intended to show Kim Jong Un’s trust in the public security forces and ensure their support moving forward.
Forthcoming analysis by NK News also shows that the security services* have been much more prominent in the public eye during this succession than the one from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, with members accompanying Kim Jong Un nearly twice as much as they did Kim Jong Il. In addition, they are well-represented on the major institutional bodies with four members on the Politburo (14%), three members on the Central Military Commission (16%) and two members on the National Defense Commission (17%).
(*Security services include Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of State Security, the Guard Command, Military Security Command, and the Korean People’s Internal Security Force, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Public Security. For an excellent roundup of the history and role of the security forces, see Ken Gause’s HRNK report.)
Special thanks to Jaesung Ryu for translation assistance.