The month May was largely dominated by two major issues regarding North Korean leadership activity. First was the story of a recent purge of numerous high-ranking officials, corroborated by the disappearances of at least three of the most senior elites in the North Korean regime. The purge of more officials has generated more concerns over regime stability, especially if it is true – though it may not be – that Kim is actually executing all of these officials, which may create more desperation within the regime.
The second major story in May was Kim’s attendance at, and praise of, the test launch of North Korea’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile. The launch and its announcement – which has been highly scrutinized and treated with understandable skepticism – are part of North Korea’s ongoing efforts to publicly demonstrate its own technological and industrial advancements through weapons developments as well as to demonstrate military strength and deterrent capabilities. This serves as propaganda for both internal and external consumption.
Other leadership activity included numerous visits by Kim to economic sites, especially in the agricultural sector, leadership status changes and notable trends in leadership appearances. Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, also reappeared after a nearly 50-day absence following rumors of her pregnancy.
KIM’S ACTIVITY IN MAY
Kim Jong Un made a total of 15 separate public appearances in May. This is up from 12 in April and above the monthly average of 14 over the past 12 months. Ten of Kim’s 15 appearances in May were in some way military-related. However, five of those 10 were military-related due to the fact that a military unit, KPA Unit 810, oversees operations of sites otherwise in agriculture and aquaculture fields under the economic sector. The KPA likely has precedence in receiving the output of these sites, but this is the case with much of North Korea’s economic output, whether the military directly oversees it or not.
The other five military-related visits by Kim were more directly related to military operations and arms production and development. Most notably, Kim observed a test launch – likely actually an ejection test – of a Pukkuksong-1 (“Polaris-1” or “North Star-1”) submarine launched ballistic missile in the waters off Sinpo, in South Hamgyong Province on the east coast. Later in the month, Kim had a photo session with personnel involved in the test launch. Kim praised the alleged accomplishment and North Korea’s defense industry.
Eight of Kim’s May appearances can be considered economic in nature. As mentioned above, Kim visited numerous sites related to agriculture and aquaculture. From May 9-23, Kim made five visits to sites related to the fishing industry – including four fish farms and one fishery – reported within just over two weeks plus a visit to a terrapin farm. He also visited a cattle farm run by KPA Unit 810 (reported together by KCNA along with the visit to fish farm under the same unit) and a tree nursery.
Additionally, Kim visited the North’s new General Satellite Control and Command Center in early May, reported in state media May 3. This facility, located just west of the National Defense Commission headquarters in the Ponghwa-dong section of Potonggang District in Pyongyang, replaces an older facility with the same name and role.
PURGES & DISAPPEARANCES
According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Hyon Yong Chol was purged and possibly executed at the end of April. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that Hyon was seen with his eyes closed during the fifth meeting of training officers of the KPA, reported in state media on April 26. However, this may not be the case. The image is only a still photograph and no video was released of the meeting (even on KCTV, which broadcast a series of photographs of the event). In all other photographs, Hyon appears attentive, either looking ahead or looking down at his papers. The most likely explanation of Hyon’s appearance in this photograph is that he is looking as the papers in front of him, something he is clearly shown to be doing several times. The photo in question was run in the Rodong Sinmun and would have to been carefully selected by the WPK’s propaganda arm, which regulates the media. It is unlikely that they would have chosen a photograph which they believed to show such a high-ranking official falling asleep at a meeting. One could perhaps argue that Hyon was already out of favor and the photograph was intentionally selected to prove his disobedience. But this would serve no purpose unless North Korea made a public proclamation of Hyon’s purge and charges against him, which they have not done.
Some American and South Korean experts believe Hyon’s execution was the result of him clashing with the now more dominant technocrats in the regime. Kim Jong Un has given more power to technocrats and more frequently shuffled military positions. Hyon was a career military officer. The purge may also have been the result of rivalry between the KPA General Political Bureau – the arm of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea within the KPA used to exercise party control of the military – and the more traditional military establishment – embodied primarily by the KPA General Staff and Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces – and part of a larger struggle for dominance between the military and the party.
Hyon has not made any appearances in Pyongyang’s state media since April 29 (in which case he was mentioned by name though not seen in photographs or video footage). However, Hyon has continued to appear in older documentary footage being rebroadcast on Korean Central Television. Hyon appeared in a documentary broadcast on KCTV on May 14. The same day, the NIS clarified that while they still believe Hyon has been purged, he may not have been executed. While North Korea has in some cases taken efforts to edit out purged officials from older footage, this is not always the case and is more common in instances where a person’s influence was considered a serious threat, as in the case of Kim Jong Un’s late uncle Jang Song Taek, who was purged and executed along with many of his associates in December 2013. It is possible that Hyon is still alive and could potentially return after a period of punishment.
Two other senior officials were also included in the recent purge reports and have not been seen in Pyongyang’s state media for some time. Han Kwang Sang, director of the WPK Finance & Accounting Department, has not appeared in state media since March 3. He was one of the officials named by NIS as being among the recent purge. Han was believed to be one of Kim’s most inner circle and an increasingly important figure in the regime. In the year prior to March 2015, he appeared in state media an average of seven times per month and often ranked second or even first in number of appearances alongside Kim Jong Un. Han’s state media appearances were almost exclusively alongside Kim. But in March 2015, he made only one appearance and made no appearances in April or May. First Vice Minister of the People’s Armed Forces So Hong Chan has not appeared in state media since March 27. An unnamed source told the Chosun Ilbo in mid-May that So was recently purged. A possible reason for So’s purge is an issue with management of the military’s food rations.
REIGN OF TERROR?
Considering the December 2013 purge of Jang and his associates and rumors of other violent purges and executions, it would appear that Kim Jong Un’s reign is more violent – at least for members of Pyongyang’s ruling elite – than were those of Kim Il Sung (excluding the early purges of rival communist factions) and Kim Jong Il. According to Andrei Lankov, Kim Jong Un has been more inclined to execute top ranking officials and some 70 have been executed. Lankov argued that Kim’s proclivity to execute dissenters rather than merely exile them to a menial job in the countryside or a small village as was done previously may cause officials to be more fearful. During the reigns of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, an official’s life was generally safe unless they committed the worst possible offenses against the regime and it was best to generally accept a punishment. Now, however, officials who feel they are in danger may see more benefit in defecting or even rebelling against Kim further.
However, it may be the case that many of the purges under Kim Jong Un have not, in fact, been as deadly as reported. NK Reform Radio reported May 22 that Ma Won Chun has been purged, but not executed. Ma has not been seen since Kim Jong Un’s visit to the construction of Terminal 2 at Pyongyang-Sunan International Airport reported in KCNA on November 1. Kim publicly expressed disappointment with the construction, which was the responsibility of Ma as director of the Designing Department of the National Defense Commission. He has reportedly been exiled to working at a collective farm in Ryanggang province on the Sino-Korean border. Additionally, the Segye Ilbo reported June 1 that Jang Jong Nam, a former minister in the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, was not executed, but demoted to the position of commander of the KPA 5th Corps. If true, these reports mean that Kim Jong Un is not executing all purged officials as has been suspected but may be more closely following the practice of his father and grandfather, who often sent purged officials into rural exile, sometimes temporarily and resulting in their return to prominence years later after they served their punishment and were considered rehabilitated.
APPEARANCES & REAPPEARANCES
A total of 20 separate elites appeared alongside Kim during May. The ratio of elites with Kim to appearances by Kim (15 in May) was 1.33. This is the lowest elite-to-appearance ratio since last July, when it was 1.08. In June, it was 1.00. The elite-to-appearance ratio in April was 2.36 and the average for the past year (June 2014 through May 2015) was 2.26. The lower ratio represents, at least for the time being, a smaller circle of elites around Kim in public.
Hwang Pyong So once again made the most appearances alongside Kim Jong Un, appearing with Kim a total of 10 times in May. For seven consecutive months – beginning last November – Hwang has made the most appearances alongside Kim – though he shared this ranking with Han Kwang Sang in January and February.
Jo Yong Won accompanied Kim Jong Un a total of six times in publicly reported events in May, the most appearances he has ever made in a single month and ranking him second after Hwang Pyong So for appearances with Kim in May. He first appeared in state media on December 16, 2014, and has never appeared three more time (twice in February and once in March of 2015) before May. Jo is a deputy director in an unspecified department within the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea. Though it is uncertain as to which WPK department Jo belongs, considering his appearances have all been to construction sites or economic operations, he may be in either the Finance & Accounting or Finance & Planning Department.
Meanwhile, Choe Ryong Hae, WPK secretary for Worker’s Organization, made only one appearance alongside Kim and six total appearances during May. Although Choe formerly was one of the officials who appeared most frequently alongside Kim, he has not ranked first in appearances with Kim since October and has also been removed from several of his higher posts in favor of Hwang Pyong So. Choe now more frequently appears without Kim, often as the leading official at events where Kim himself is not attendance. This could signify that Choe is allowed to operate more independently, but just as easily mean that Choe’s role has become more ceremonial, as is the case with DPRK Premier Pak Pong Ju and President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam. Ceremonial duties and posts are often conferred upon North Korean officials who have moved beyond the more active and influential phase of their political careers but who still remain in favor with the core elite of the regime. However, it is not clear yet if this is the case with Choe.
Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong made her first public appearance in 47 days on May 29, accompanying her brother on his inspection of a tree nursery. Her last appearance in state media prior to this was on April 12 when she accompanied her brother to an inspection of the ongoing construction of the new Terminal 2 at Pyongyang-Sunan International Airport. The nearly 50-day absence of Kim Yo Jong supports, but does not confirm, the claim by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service that Kim has been pregnant and was expected to give birth by the end of this month.
Though not mentioned by name in any state media reports in May, Hong Yong Chil did accompany Kim during his visits to the February 11 Plant of the Ryongsong Machine Complex and the General Satellite Control and Command Center. Hong was visible in photographs of the events published by Pyongyang’s state media.
PROMOTIONS & POSITION CHANGES
There were relatively few high-level position changes and promotions revealed during May, although the stories of recent purges do suggest other changes are still taking place behind the scenes.
Kang Yong Chol replaced Ri Hyok as minister of Fisheries sometime after April 2014. Ri Hyok was last mentioned in state media on April 9, 2014, when he was renewed in his post as Fisheries Minister. Kang made his first appearance in state media on May 9, accompanying Kim on his visit to the Sinpho (Sinpo) Pelagic Fishery Complex in South Hamgyong province. Regime leadership has been giving increasing attention to the North’s fishing industry in the last few months. Five of Kim’s 15 visits in May were related to the fishing industry as were four in March.
Pak Yong Sik was promoted to the rank of full general (four-star) sometime between May 15 and May 29. He was seen wearing the three stars of a colonel general when he accompanied Kim to the Sinchang Fish Farm, reported by KCNA May 15, but wearing four stars in photos published May 29 from their visit to a tree nursery. Pak is a department director in the Ministry of People’s, the internal security and regular police force. Senior officials in the MPS typically hold general officer ranks in the KPA.
FULL ELITE BREAKDOWN FOR MAY
|Kim Jong Un||Supreme Leader||15||100%|
|Hwang Pyong So||Director, KPA General Political Bureau; Vice Chairman, NDC; First Deputy Director, WPK Organization and Guidance Depatment||10||67%|
|Jo Yong Won||Deputy Department Director, WPK Central Committee||6||40%|
|Ri Jae Il||First Deputy Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department||5||33%|
|Jang Chang Ha||arms industry official||3||20%|
|O Su Yong||Secretary (Light Industry), WPK Central Committee; Chief Secretary of the North Hamgyong Provincial Committee of the WPK||3||20%|
|Pak Yong Sik||Department Director, Ministry of People’s Security||3||20%|
|Choe Ryong Hae||Secretary (Worker’s Organizations), WPK Central Committee; Chairman, State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission||1||7%|
|Jo Kyong Chol||Commander, Military Security Command||1||7%|
|Jon Yong Nam||Chairman, Central Committee of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League||1||7%|
|Kang Yong Chol||Minister, Ministry of Fisheries||1||7%|
|Kim Chun Sop||Member, National Defense Commission; Chief Secretary, Jagang Provincial Committee of the WPK||1||7%|
|Kim Yang Gon||Director, United Front Department; Secretary, WPK Central Committee||1||7%|
|Kim Yo Jong||Deputy Director, WPK Propaganda & Agitation Department||1||7%|
|O Il Jong||Director, WPK Military Affairs Department||1||7%|
|O Kum Chol||Vice Chief, KPA General Staff||1||7%|
|Pang Kwan Bok||General, KPA||1||7%|
|Ri Il Hwan||Department Director, WPK Central Committee||1||7%|
|Ri Pyong Chol||First Deputy Department Director, WPK Central Committee||1||7%|
|Ri Yong Gil||Chief of the KPA General Staff||1||7%|
|Ryom Chol Song||Deputy Director, KPA General Political Bureau||1||7%|
Note: Numbers represent only appearances with Kim Jong Un and with the name listed by state media. Elites make unmentioned appearances and appearances without Kim Jong Un. See the NK Leadership Tracker Methodology page for more information.
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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