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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
High-ranking DPRK official Hwang Pyong So, widely believed to have suffered a demotion in 2016, appears to have been promoted once again, according to the updated edition of the annual reference book on the North Korean elite published this week by the Ministry of Unification (MOU).
The 2019 editions of the reference books “Information on important people in North Korea” and “List of North Korean cadres sorted by department” were released by the MOU on December 27, compiled using original documents it obtained in addition to DPRK media reports.
Hwang was previously revealed in the North Korean press to have been formally removed from some of his previous high-ranking positions in 2017, but now occupies the high position of First Vice-chairman of the country’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), according to the MOU.
The new role would place him directly under OGD Chairman Choe Ryong Hae, whose position at the top of the organization was listed as unconfirmed in last year’s edition, before being officially recognized in the role by the MOU in January.
Choe was also recently sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, named in the accompanying report as an official “who direct departments that perpetrate the regime’s brutal state-sponsored censorship activities, human rights violations and abuses, and other abuses in order to suppress and control the population.”
Another individual newly confirmed by the MOU as occupying an important role is Han Kwang Sang, Chairman of the Finance and Accountancy Bureau under the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee (WPK CC).
Han, who was not listed in the previous year’s edition as holding any major chairmanships at the top of the North Korean government, now appears to be in charge of the all-important party purse-strings.
While he often appeared during Kim Jong Un’s on-the-spot guidance tours in years past, Han was only seen on one such occasion in 2017, before appearing around a dozen times again this year.
Meanwhile, the two highest-ranking officials responsible for the North’s economy – Premier Pak Pong Ju and head of the Economy Department of the Party O Su Yong – remain in their positions, according to the MOU.
But while the South’s unification ministry continues to provide detailed lists of individuals and accounting of their attendance at thousands of events over the years, information on some areas of the North’s government structure remain sketchy.
One such area is the DPRK’s secret police, which NK Pro analyst Fyodor Tertitskiy attributes to MOU reluctance to make public confidential or sensitive information.
While the entry for the Ministry of People’s Security – the country’s police – lists over a dozen individuals and positions as part of the department, the Ministry of State Security on the other hand only lists three: Colonel General Jong Kyong Thaek as minister, Lieutenant General So Tae Ha as vice minister, and Kim Chang Sop as head of the Ministry’s political department.
Throughout the reference book on organizational positions, many roles are also left without occupants, which can be attributed to incomplete information, as the MOU characterizes it in the foreword, to selective reporting, and also to actual vacancies.
That role has been left vacant following former Chairwoman Ryu Mi Yong’s death in 2016.
The position of the President of the Kim Il Sung Military University – the most prestigious military academy in the country – is also left empty in the latest edition, meaning it is either still vacant or unknown.
As for remaining mysteries over the country’s top leadership, it was revealed the MOU believes Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong – first vice-director of the WPK CC’s Propaganda and Agitation Department – was born in 1988, having previously thought to have been born in 1987 or ’89.
Kim Jong Un’s birthday, however, remains unconfirmed, listed as January 8, 1984, with 1982 or 1983 left as additional possibilities.
Additional reporting by Fyodor Tertitskiy
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA