October began with, arguably, the peak of speculation about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s prolonged absence, as well as about who was in charge in Pyongyang. There was even a surprise visit to South Korea by senior North Korean officials, resulting in talks with Seoul. Midway through the month, though, Kim reappeared, and, by the end of the month it was clear that Pyongyang was not going to follow through on a second round of talks with the South.
Kim made 11 total appearances in October. Six were to newly completed construction projects, four were military-related (one of which was also a completed construction project), and the two remaining were sports-related. Choe Ryong Hae accompanied Kim on all 11 appearances. Han Kwang Sang was present for nine and Hwang Pyong So for eight. All others appeared with Kim four times or less.
KIM’S ABSENCE, REAPPEARANCE
Kim Jong Un reappeared in state media on October 14 after a record 40-day absence from public view. Kim had been seen sporting a limp since July and, since his reappearance, has been walking with a cane in his left hand. According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Kim underwent surgery for a cyst on his ankle around May or June and then had to undergo further surgery in September or October to repair muscle or nerve damage. Another possible explanation is that Kim injured his leg during field guidance of military drills.
Pyongyang’s state media, mouthpieces of the government and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, provided made very little of the either Kim’s absence or of his reappearance. Nor did they provide much explanation – aside from one vague mention of him suffering from “discomfort” – for his absence or his use of cane upon reappearing. North Korea has more or less treated the whole thing as routine, making no mention of it when Kim reappeared. Pyongyang clearly wants to perpetuate the idea that the regime is unified and Kim’s power unquestioned.
Before Kim’s reappearance though, there were some events that heightened speculation. Kim, for example, failed to make a midnight appearance at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun for the anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10 after having done so the previous two years,. Even more significant, though, was the sudden visit to South Korea by a delegation of high-ranking regime officials. Hwang Pyong So, Choe Ryong Hae and Kim Yang Gon attended the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in Incheon on October 4 and even held talks with South Korean Minister of Unification Ryu Kihl-jae and Presidential Security Adviser Kim Kwan-jin.
This visit and meeting quickly led to further speculation and questioning by observers. The sudden appearance in the South of such high-level Pyongyang officials – and some of the specific circumstances such as the presence of bodyguards, etc. – led many to question whether it was Kim who was still running the country. Furthermore, it appeared that the North was more willing than ever to talk with Seoul and possibly improve relations. There were even plans for a second round of talks. But these hopes were dashed by the end of the month when Pyongyang, citing the Seoul’s refusal to stop the launches of propaganda leaflet-carrying balloons across the border, canceled the talks.
CONSTRUCTION, MILITARY FOCUS
Out of Kim’s 11 recorded appearances in October, all but two were directly related to either construction or to the military – and, in one case, both. From this it is quite clear that Pyongyang wants to portray Kim, despite his prolonged absence and obvious physical handicap (temporary or otherwise), as a hands-on leader who is still out ensuring that things are getting done right.
Continuing a trend that began in late May, after the collapse of an apartment tower in Pyongyang, Kim visited the sites of six different construction projects. Only this time they were all recently completed, showing that, under the guidance of regime leadership, North Korea has been able to successfully accomplish its tasks in this field (another aspect of this trend, Kim’s criticism of substandard construction, was seen on November 1). The purpose of this – aside from depicting Kim as a hands-on leader in general – is to show that the regime leadership is concerned about issues of construction standards and building safety and that they won’t allow another accident to happen again. Whether there has been a real effort to fix things here or just a show, though, is debatable at this point.
After construction projects, the field that received the most public attention from Kim was military affairs. Kim personally oversaw military training exercises three times in October and also viewed a newly completed restaurant for military service personnel. Kim twice attended take-off and landing drills by air force units held on highway airstrips. He also attended a combat drill between two combined ground force units of the Korean People’s Army. None of these events were out of the ordinary for North Korea and were likely planned for some time. Nonetheless, the military continues to be a primary subject of Kim’s personal attention.
NEW DIPLOMATIC OFFENSIVE
Pyongyang has recently been engaged in a new diplomatic offensive. The primary goal of this campaign appears to be an attempt to avoid a United Nations referral of the country, and Kim Jong Un in particular, to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for human rights violations.
In their most direct appeal, North Korean diplomats met with UN human rights special rapporteur on North Korea Marzuki Darusman and even invited him to visit the North. If Darusman does visit the North, though, he is unlikely to be allowed to view any prison facility in its normal state. If he viewed any such place, it would be a regular criminal prison, and probably one specifically setup for his visit. North Korea still denies the existence of political prisons, though they did recently admit to having reform-through-labor facilities.
The other major front of this campaign was in Africa. Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, led a delegation that visited Sudan, the Republic of the Congo, and Uganda. During this trip, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kung Sok Ung, part of Kim Yong Nam’s delegation, requested that Uganda oppose UN resolutions to refer the North to the ICC. The delegation may also have made similar requests to the other countries. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is himself the first sitting head of state to ever to be indicted by the ICC and is therefore likely to be sympathetic.
In a likely attempt to appear more cooperative with the international community, Pyongyang released detained American citizen Jeffrey Fowle on October 21. North Korea said themselves that Fowle “was handed over to the U.S. side according to a relevant legal procedure,” and claimed this was a response to “repeated requests of U.S. President Obama.”
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, told NK News, “the leadership probably figured the detention of the three Americans is only bringing more international attention and bad publicity.”
Overall, these efforts show that, in the aftermath of the UN Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights and the proposition to refer the country to the ICC, Pyongyang has begun to take the human rights issue much more seriously than before. Important diplomatic figures have made public efforts to limit the fallout of these developments and to protect the regime from prosecution.
During the month of October there were new rumors of purges and executions among the North Korean elites. Some have since been proven false by the reappearance of those men, while the status of others remains unknown.
– Ri Yong Gil: Chief of the KPA General Staff, Ri reappeared on October 24 for a military drill of KPA combined units. Rumors of his purge were supported by his absence at some prior military events.
– Ma Won Chun: Director of the Designing Department of the National Defense Commission, Ma reappeared on October 26 at Kim’s field guidance to the Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage. Rumors of his purge were supported by his absence during Kim’s prior visits to construction projects, at which he is usually present since he oversees this industry.
– Ri Pyong Chol: Commander of the KPA Air and Anti-Air Force, Ri was last mentioned in September when he was made a member of the National Defense Commission. It is unlikely Pyongyang would make Ri a member of the NDC only to purge him a month later. Rumors of his purge were supported by his absence at two KPA Air Force drills, but state media has not referred to any other officer as being commander of the air force.
– Sim Chol Ho: Minister of Post and Telecommunications, Sim was last mentioned by state media in April when he was reaffirmed in his ministerial post by the newly elected 13th SPA. Sim doesn’t appear often in state media, but his absence at a meeting of officials with Naguib Sawiris, head of Egyptian telecom company Orascom, was unexpected. As minister of Post and Telecommunications, Sim oversees the North Korean mobile phone network, Koryolink. Orascom is the builder and majority owner of Koryolink and Sawiris was undoubtedly there to discuss that.
– Jang Ung: Jang, the first vice minister of Physical Culture and Sports, last appeared in September at the end of the Pyongyang International Pro-Wrestling Games. One notable development is that, following the Pyongyang International Pro-Wrestling Games, a sports diplomacy event apparently led by officials of the Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports, the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission was resurrected with Choe Ryong Hae as its head. This could be a sign that the diplomacy aspect of the sports diplomacy initiative wasn’t going as well as Pyongyang had hoped and they brought in higher officials to take over this role at the end of the Asian Games. However, Minister of Physical Culture and Sports Kim Yong Hun remained involved in Asian Games-related events. It may not be a case of a purge but merely a shuffling of some roles when it comes to sports diplomacy. Officials of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission hold those titles as a diplomatic or political formality more so than any real connection to sports, and so wouldn’t fully replace people like Jang.
– Kim Kyong Ok: A senior deputy director in the WPK Organization and Guidance Department, Kim was last seen in March at a Moranbong Band Performance. This absence, now over seven months, is Kim’s longest since he began appearing regularly in state media in 2010.
Unless announced by Pyongyang, North Korean purges are difficult to confirm. Sometimes officials disappear from view for many months only to reappear later with no explanation. If an official is suddenly replaced in all positions, a purge is more likely, but that doesn’t appear to be the case yet for any of these men. That said, some of these purges could be true; the absence of Kim Kyong Ok in particular is most unusual.
In addition to the above, there have been reappearances by other officials who hadn’t been seen for some time. Some of these serve as proof that Pyongyang’s elites can disappear for quite some time without being purged.
– O Il Jong made four appearances in October. O appeared at all three military drills attended by Kim as well as Kim’s meeting with gold medal-winning athletes from the Asian Games. His last appearance prior to October was in February at a meeting of leaders of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards (WPRG) – North Korea’s militia force. O is a colonel general in the KPA, director of the WPK Military Affairs Department, a member of WPK Central Military Committee, and commander of the WPRG. He is also the son of the late O Jin U, a member of the Kim Il Sung’s anti-Japanese guerrillas, former armed forces minister and KPA marshal. O makes infrequent appearances.
– Pak Myong Chol, president of the Supreme Court and councilor for the NDC, made three appearances, his first with Kim since December. – Jo Yon Jun, a senior deputy director in the OGD, made his first appearance since February.
– Kim Phyong Hae, secretary and director of the WPK Cadre Department, made his first his appearance with Kim since March and first media appearance of any kind since July.
There are four or five major factors to observe about the North Korean leadership this month: the nature of Kim’s absence and reappearance, the details of his public appearances, the diplomatic campaign to prevent Kim’s referral to the ICC, and the ambiguity regarding who has what kind of power in the regime and who appears to have fallen out of favor. Taken together, these all show that North Korea’s regime is one where Kim is preeminently in charge, but with many others holding significant influence. There will continue to be changes in personnel and in their relative power and influence, but it is very unlikely that any one of them can fully control the system with Kim in it, let alone replace him. The regime is obviously concerned with protecting Kim and his image because they do need him.
FULL ELITE BREAKDOWN FOR OCTOBER
|Kim Jong Un||Supreme Leader||11||100%|
|Choe Ryong Hae||Secretary (Worker’s Organizations), WPK Central Committee; Chairman, State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission||11||100%|
|Han Kwang Sang||Director, WPK Finance & Accounting Department||9||82%|
|Hwang Pyong So||Director, KPA General Political Bureau; Vice Chairman, NDC; First Deputy Director, WPK Organization and Guidance Depatment||8||73%|
|O Il Jong||Director, WPK Military Affairs Department||4||36%|
|Choe Thae Bok||Chairman, SPA; Secretary of the WPK Central Committee (Education)||3||27%|
|Kim Jong Gwan||Vice Minister, Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces||3||27%|
|Pak Myong Chol||President, Supreme Court; Councilor, National Defense Commission||3||27%|
|Hyon Yong Chol||Minister of the People’s Armed Forces||2||18%|
|Kim Ki Nam||Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department; Secretary, WPK Central Committee||2||18%|
|Kim Yang Gon||Director, United Front Department; Secretary, WPK Central Committee||2||18%|
|Ma Won Chun||Director, Designing Department of the National Defense Commission||2||18%|
|Ri Jae Il||First Deputy Director, WPK Department (probably Propaganda & Agitation)||2||18%|
|Ri Sol Ju||Wife of the Supreme Leader||2||18%|
|Jo Yon Jun||Senior Deputy Director, WPK Organization & Guidance Department||1||9%|
|Kang Kyong Chol||Unit Commander, KPA Air and Anti-Air Force; Officer, KPA||1||9%|
|Kang Sok Ju||Secretary (International Affairs), WPK Central Committee||1||9%|
|Kim Chang Ho||Unit Commander, KPA Air and Anti-Air Force; Officer, KPA||1||9%|
|Kim Hyon Ung||Unit Commander, KPA Air and Anti-Air Force; Officer, KPA||1||9%|
|Kim Jin Gun||Officer, KPA Unit 267||1||9%|
|Kim Phyong Hae||Secretary and Director, WPK Cadre Department||1||9%|
|Kim Su Gil||Chief Secretary, Pyongyang City People’s Committee||1||9%|
|Kim Yong Hun||Minister, Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports||1||9%|
|Kwak Pom Ki||Director, WPK Finance and Planning Department||1||9%|
|O Kum Chol||Vice Chief, KPA General Staff||1||9%|
|O Su Yong||Secretary (Light Industry), WPK Central Committee; Chief Secretary, North Hamgyong Provincial Committee of the WPK||1||9%|
|Pak Pong Ju||Premier of the DPRK||1||9%|
|Pak To Chun||Secretary, WPK Central Committee||1||9%|
|Pyon In Son||Director, KPA General Staff Operations Bureau; First Vice Chief, KPA General Staff; Vice Minister of the People’s Armed Forces||1||9%|
|Ri Jong Mu||Lieutenant General, KPA; Former Minister of Physical Culture and Sports||1||9%|
|Ri Yong Gil||Chief of the KPA General Staff||1||9%|
|Ro Kyong Jun||Officer, KPA Unit 267; Alternate Member, WPK Central Committee||1||9%|
|Ro Tu Chol||Vice Premier of the DPRK; Vice Chairman, State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission||1||9%|
|Sin Thae Sop||Unit Commander, KPA Air and Anti-Air Force; Officer, KPA||1||9%|
Main photo: KCNA
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