Jo Yong Won, a vice director at the North Korean ruling party’s powerful Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), appeared in state media more than any other DPRK official last year with the exception of Kim Jong Un, data revealed this week.
The data, pulled from NK News‘s sister site NK Pro’s North Korean leadership tracker, revealed Jo made 52 reported public appearances last year, suggesting the man once described as a “rising star” of DPRK politics remains one of the country’s most important officials.
He is understood to be a close confidant of the North Korean leader – most recently appearing alongside him in footage of the build-up to Kim’s New Year’s Speech – and is believed to have rose to power in 2015.
The news sees Jo replace Hwang Pyong So, who secured the top spot in 2017 but was widely believed to have been demoted last year, as North Korea’s most frequently appearing state official.
Hwang appeared in public 29 times in 2018, however, with South Korea’s unification ministry reporting late in the year that he had recently been promoted to First Vice-chairman of the OGD.
One expert said the NK Pro statistics suggested that reports of his being purged may have been overstated.
“The data supports the claim that at least some of these cases are instances of getting extra training before coming back to KJU’s side, often promoted (as some careerists in the UK take MBAs, for example),” Tristan Webb, an NK Pro contributor and former DPRK analyst for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), said.
Also prominent in 2018’s data is Choe Ryong Hae, a key advisor to Kim Jong Un who sits on the ruling party’s Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee.
Choe was reported to have been stripped of his rank and demoted in 2015, though has in recent years returned to the highest echelons of the North Korean power structure.
“Jo and Choe’s appearances may reflect their personal standing, as they are not diplomats and this was a year of diplomacy,” said Fyodor Tertitskiy, an expert in the North Korean leadership and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro.
The shifts in trends also speak to North Korea’s changing priorities last year: while 2017’s top ten was dominated by military officials, 2018’s saw a marked shift towards economic and diplomatic public appearances.
Among the officials appearing in public most frequently last year was Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), who in recent months has led the DPRK’s often-fraught negotiations with the U.S. over its nuclear program.
North Korea’s diplomatic push – and changing leadership dynamics – was also reflected in the marked increase of reported public appearances by Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who serves as a first vice department director of the Central Committee of the WPK, and North Korean First Lady Ri Sol Ju.
Data suggests Ri made a total of 49 public appearances in 2018, while Kim made a total of 26.
Ri Sol Ju in the past year has become a fixture of North Korean summitry, appearing at seven of Kim Jong Un’s eight meetings with foreign leaders last year and prominently at other major diplomatic events.
April also saw Ri Sol Ju afforded her own title by North Korean state media: “Respected Lady,” in a move which NK News at the time described as a “major development.”
Kim Yo Jong, in turn, spent much of the last year acting as something of a conduit between the two Koreas, traveling to South Korea to attend the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and delivering news of Kim Jong Un’s intention to hold a third inter-Korean summit.
She later became a prominent official at her brother’s historic Singapore meeting in June with U.S. President Donald Trump, and at a fifth inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September.
The rise of the two women, Webb suggested, could mean Kim may be seeking to widen the authority of his other family members in the minds of North Koreans.
“In the longer term the continued presence of Ri Sol Ju and Kim Yo Jong may be important, because they could perhaps be presented as a legitimate (temporary) holder of the Baekdu lineage mantle were Kim Jong Un’s health to go,” he said.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun, edited by NK News