Why has Choe Ryong Hae been so frequently absent in the first two months of 2014?
Vice Marshall Choe, long one of Kim Jong Un’s top officials, has made very few public appearances since the start of the new year, and the frequency of those appearances continues to decline. The absence of Choe, whom many believe to be the new second-in-command of North Korea after the ouster of Jang Song Taek, does not necessarily mean he is gone or even demoted, but certainly does seem unusual.
Choe has clearly been one of the most important figures in the North Korean leadership since Kim Jong Un rose to power. He is currently director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau, making him the top political official for the military, in charge of ensuring the military officers and their policies remain in line with the Workers’ Party of Korea. He is also vice-chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission and a member of the Presidium of the WPK Political Bureau. He is also literally Kim’s right-hand man, normally appearing immediately to Kim’s right at official functions – unless Kim’s wife Ri Sol Ju is present – and is almost always listed first after Kim by state media – again, unless Ri is present. No person has made more public appearances alongside Kim than Choe, not even Kim’s wife. In 2013 alone, Choe accompanied Kim on 165 public appearances, more than twice that of anyone else that year.
But in 2014 Choe’s public presence has starkly declined. He accompanied Kim only seven times and made only three other appearances. He currently ranks fourth in terms of number of appearances with Kim, behind Hwang Pyong So, Ma Won Chun, and Ri Yong Gil. Furthermore, the frequency of his appearances continues to drop. He was seen seven times between the beginning of the year and January 20, but only three times since then. It was particularly unusual, given his positions, that Choe was absent at military-related events and at the recent 8th Conference of Ideological Officials of the WPK.
All of this doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that Choe has fallen out of favor or been demoted. He did appear right next to Kim at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on February 16 for Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Presence and position at these visits to Kumsusan are very important in the North Korean regime and serve as a gauge of an official’s effective ranking. One possibility is that Choe has been heavily involved in some other project or duties lately. Another is that he could simply be ill and made a – not entirely optional – exception to appear on Kim Jong Il’s birthday. Of course, it is always possible that other officials, such as Hwang Pyong So, are gradually being given precedence over Choe. While abrupt purges garner the most attention, many officials in North Korea go through a slow, quiet decline. Ultimately, time and observation will tell if Choe remains at the top of the regime or not.
Picture: Korea Central TV
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