2019 saw the rise in prominence of several top military and munitions industry officials, data from NK News’s sister site NK Pro shows, while Jo Yong Won remained the North Korean leader’s most frequently-appearing aide for the second year in a row.
The NK Pro leadership tracker reveals a conspicuous rise in military-related appearances by the North Korean leader, in a year which saw a deadlock in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington and a total of 13 missile tests by the DPRK.
This shift has also been accompanied by the rise of a number of major military and munitions industry officials appearing alongside Kim Jong Un, many of whom received promotions during last month’s ruling party plenum.
Most notable among these are Pak Jong Chon and Ri Pyong Chol, who appeared at 13 events alongside the North Korean leader in 2019.
Ri, who previously served as a first vice director at the Munitions Industry Department, appeared only three times in 2018.
But reflecting his increased role and fueling speculation that he had succeeded former department director Thae Jong Su, he was promoted to serve a full member of the party Politburo, a party Central Committee vice chairman, and a party department director during December’s plenum.
Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff chief Pak Jong Chon, recently promoted to an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), also appears to have rose to sudden stardom, having remained relatively low-profile the previous year.
Other military officials including Minister of the People’s Armed Forces No Kwang Chol, and Director of the General Political Bureau of the KPA Kim Su Gil, too, were among the top twenty officials by the DPRK leader’s side, a marked increase compared to 2019.
That list of top elites accompanying Kim Jong Un newly-included Yu Jin, Jang Chang Ha, Kim Jong Sik, and Jon Il Ho, all officials in the country’s national defense sector. All four were seen greeting the North Korean leader at multiple missile test events.
Yu Jin and Kim Jong Sik are known as being among the party’s top munitions industry officials of the party, and Jon Il Ho was promoted in August to a three-star colonel-general title for achievements in “national defense.” Jang Chang Ha serves as the head of the country’s Academy of National Defense Science.
THE NEW, THE OLD, AND THE GONE
Despite the changes, Kim Jong Un was also in 2019 frequently seen alongside many familiar faces.
Chief among these was Jo Yong Won, a vice director at the North Korean ruling party’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) and long seen as one of the North Korean leader’s top advisers.
Jo made 34 reported public appearances last year, with leadership number two Choe Ryong Hae coming in a close second with 30.
The 2019 list of top elites also featured Hyon Song Wol, a former musician who has taken an increasingly prominent role in the past year and was the seventh most frequently-appearing DPRK official in 2019.
Hyon has often been seen closely following Kim Jong Un and managing logistics on the ground during his on-site appearances after taking up a role as a vice director at the ruling party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD).
Meanwhile, Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, rose from seventh to fourth in rank, in a year which may have seen her promoted to a more high-profile role in the ruling party.
Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol Ju remained in the top ten, although her appearances decreased from 48 in 2018 to 14 in 2019.
Also new to the list was Kim Jae Ryong, ranked tenth, who succeeded Pak Pong Ju as cabinet premier in an April reshuffle.
Despite this apparent demotion, Pak Pong Ju remains one of the DPRK’s top officials in 2019, ranked fifth: an increase of 11 places compared to last year.
Veteran diplomats Ri Su Yong and Ri Yong Ho also appear to have retained their prominence — both ranking third — though their absence from a December party plenum group photo raised eyebrows.
Ri Il Hwan, who appeared alongside Kim Jong Un only once in 2019, appears to be one of the officials to have received a major promotion during that plenum, reported appointed a vice-chairman at the party central committee, department director, and a full member of the Politburo.
It remains to be seen which role Ri Il Hwan is taking on, and who he succeeds.
While 2019 saw the rise of some new faces and a reshuffles among some of the older ones, two officials notably disappeared from the list: Hwang Pyong So and Ri Son Gwon.
While Hwang ranked fifth place in 2018 and appeared to be returning to a top role after his 2016 demotion, he did not appear alongside the North Korean leader last year, data revealed.
This data stands in a stark contrast with 2017, when he was ranked as the most prominent official.
Ri Son Gwon, in turn, serves as chairman of the DPRK’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, and his lack of appearances by the leader’s side in 2019 may reflect a lack of progress in inter-Korean talks last year.
Edited by Oliver Hotham