September was, without a doubt, a noteworthy and memorable month with regard to North Korean leadership activity. As of October 3, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has officially been missing from public view for 30 days, his longest absence ever. This has, as expected, led to many questions and speculation about what’s happened to Kim and what it means for the regime in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, North Korea’s rubber stamp legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, held its second meeting this year and formalized some leadership position changes.
Kim made only one official appearance all month. This has only happened once before, in September 2010, and that was the month in which Kim made his first official public appearance alongside his father at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
Kim has not been seen in public since September 3 (reported in state media on September 4). This absence, 30 days and counting as of October 3, is Kim’s longest since he first began making official appearances in 2010. His longest absence as Supreme Leader prior to this was a 24-day absence between June 7 and July 1, 2012. His second longest absence ever was for 29 days between July 28 and August 27, 2011 – while his father was still alive.
Kim’s sole public appearance in September was at a Moranbong Band concert at Pyongyang’s Mansudae Art Theatre, reported by state media on September 4. He was accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, his sister Kim Yo Jong, and several top officials including Hwang Pyong So.
It didn’t take long for observers to notice the unusual lack of state media appearances by Kim and, consequently, to begin questioning it. A rumor soon spread that Kim, who allegedly developed a fondness for Swiss Ementaller cheese while studying abroad there, had imported large quantities to North Korea for his own personal consumption. Kim was also seen sporting a limp since July. This, combined with his physical size, smoking habit, and rumored love of cheese, has led to speculation that Kim may be afflicted with gout, which often causes pain in the joints of the feet and ankles.
Pyongyang did, uncharacteristically, publicly announce that Kim was indeed suffering from health problems, but they provided no details. North Korea later denied rumors that Kim underwent ankle surgery.
This situation has additionally led to speculation about who is currently in charge in Pyongyang and whether or not there will be any major change in the structure of the regime. The Seoul-based think tank North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) suggested that Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, may presently be responsible for running the regime while her brother is being treated for his health problems. Kim Yo Jong has been confirmed to be a senior member of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee and may be a member of the Secretariat.
SECOND SPA SESSION
Despite Kim’s absence, the leadership in Pyongyang continued going about its business as planned. Specifically, the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), North Korea’s rubber stamp legislature, held its second session since being elected in March.
The 13th SPA convened its second session at Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang on September 25. In reality, the SPA sessions make no actual decisions, but rather fully formalize decisions made by the SPA Presidium and/or the Party. The first matter approved by the SPA in this session was an ordinance on enforcing the universal 12-year compulsory education system, which was initiated at an SPA session in 2012.
More importantly, though, there were several senior leadership position changes formalized by this SPA session.
Hwang Pyong So was made vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), replacing Choe Ryong Hae. Hwang was already director of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Political Bureau – also formerly held by Choe – and first deputy director of the WPK Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) and is widely regarded as the de facto second-in-command in Pyongyang. Hwang’s appointment to this post has been anticipated for some time.
Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Hyon Yong Chol and general and Commander of the KPA Air and Anti-Air Force Ri Pyong Chol were also made members of the NDC. Both men were already members of the WPK Central Military Commission.
Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Jong Nam were removed as vice chair and member, respectively, of the NDC. KCNA cited the reason for these changes as a “transfer to another position”. In the case of Choe, this likely meant his change from military officer to party secretary earlier this year and his recent appointment as chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission. It is unclear as to what this refers with regard to Jang. These changes bring the size of the NDC back up to 10 officials (excluding the Councilor), as it had been until April of this year.
Meanwhile, as mentioned above, Choe Ryong Hae was appointed chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission. Choe is also the WPK Central Committee secretary for worker’s organization. The commission’s previous chairman was Kim Jong Un’s now deceased uncle, Jang Song Taek.
State media only began mentioning the commission again in late August after no official references to it since November, at which time it was still headed by Jang. It appears that the commission may have initially been inactive following the purge of Jang and his associates and recently resurrected.
Earlier, it was widely believed that Choe was gradually being phased out of power in favor of Hwang Pyong So, who has replaced him in all of his military posts. However, Choe has continued to appear at important events and alongside Kim Jong Un. Most recently, Choe – along with Hwang and Kim Yang Gon – made a rare visit to South Korea on the occasion of the closing ceremony of the Asian Games and met with high-ranking officials of the South. So, it appears that Choe still retains much importance in the regime and these changes were likely more a matter of reorganization and a rise for Hwang, but not a fall for Choe.
Aside from these upper-level changes, there were two senior diplomatic appointments made. Kang Yong Dok (강용덕) was appointed DPRK ambassador to Sweden. This appointment fills a diplomatic post which had been vacant since December of last year, when the previous holder, Pak Kwang Chol, was recalled. Myong Kyong Chol (명경철) was appointed DPRK ambassador to Uganda. He replaced Jong Thae Yang, who held the post since July 2010. Jong also served concurrently as ambassador to Burundi since December 2010 and Rwanda since May 2011. Myong will likely succeed Jong in these positions as well.
UNCERTAINTY & SPECULATION
Aside from the speculation and rumor about precisely what health problems Kim is having and what caused them – all of which is nearly impossible to confirm anyway – Kim’s prolonged absence has caused a spike in talk about what will happen to Kim and who is really running the show in Pyongyang.
Theories about the prior state of affairs range from the belief that Kim is the true Supreme Leader to the idea that he is no more than a puppet of the OGD. Guesses about what is happening now include a soft coup, Kim falling too ill and having to accept a less active role in governing, and the idea that nothing has really changed and Kim is just sick and recuperating. It is likely that Kim really is having health issues and is, in fact, out of commission for a while.
Taking a somewhat middle-of-the-road view, it is likely that the Pyongyang regime, especially under Kim Jong Un, has functioned much like any monarchy – which is what North Korea effectively is. The hereditary ruler serves as the highest official authority, symbolic leadership figure, and holder of dynastic legitimacy. But there is always a complex network of officials and advisers telling the ruler what he should do and exercising power of their own through direct control of the party, government, and military. The extent of the ruler’s actual power vis-à-vis the advisers and officials fluctuates with the circumstances. Neither can function without the other without a major change in the publicly proclaimed ideology.
FULL ELITE BREAKDOWN FOR SEPTEMBER
|Kim Jong Un||Supreme Leader||1||100%|
|Ri Sol Ju||Wife of the Supreme Leader||1||100%|
|Hwang Pyong So||Director, KPA General Political Bureau; Vice Chairman, NDC; First Deputy Director, Organization and Guidance Depatment||1||100%|
|Kim Ki Nam||Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department; Secretary, WPK Central Committee||1||100%|
|Choe Ryong Hae||Secretary (Worker’s Organizations), WPK Central Committee; Chairman, State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission||1||100%|
|Kim Yang Gon||Director, United Front Department; Secretary, WPK Central Committee||1||100%|
|Kim Yo Jong||Member, WPK Central Committee||1||100%|
|Ri Jae Il||First Deputy Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department||1||100%|
Main photo: Rodong Sinmun