A major leadership reshuffle appears to be underway in North Korea, with notable promotions and possible demotions of top Workers’ Party officials in the military, cabinet, munitions industry, and more, DPRK state media coverage of a year-end party plenum revealed on Wednesday.
According to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the plenum by-elected three people as members of the Political Bureau (PB) of the Party Central Committee (CC) and six as alternate members. A by-election is meant to fill a vacancy.
The plenum also elected four vice-chairmen of the Party Central Committee, ten new department directors, and four new first vice-department directors, among the reported appointments.
And in what may be a sign of Pyongyang’s determination to continue its weapons programs, Wednesday also saw the rise of Ri Pyong Chol, previously the party’s Munitions Industry Department first vice director, to a full member of the party Political Bureau, a party Central Committee (CC) vice chairman, and a party department director.
MUNITIONS INDUSTRY AND MILITARY
One of the most striking aspects of the latest personnel shuffles was the elevation of Ri Pyong Chol, says Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
Ri, until recently, served as first vice director of the party’s Munitions Industry Department under Thae Jong Su and apparently has taken on a key role in the North’s weapons development, says Lee.
His promotion “underscores Kim’s resolve to continue weapons development,” she said.
“Ri’s promotions also seem to suggest he has taken Thae’s place on the PB, party Central Committee vice chairmen group, and as Munitions Industry Department head.”
Ri Pyong Chol was seen in multiple state media reports on the country’s weapons testing last year along with Kim Jong Un, while Ri’s attendance was also reported when the North hailed a successful October test of the Pukguksong-3, a “new-type” submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), when Kim reportedly opted not to attend.
Ri was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for reportedly being “a key official involved in North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development.”
Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff chief Pak Jong Chon was also reported on Wednesday to have received a promotion: he was by-elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau. Evidence that his promotion was coming first appeared a few weeks ago, as noted at the time by NK Pro.
Pak Jong Chon authored North Korea’s recent statement boasting of the development of a new “strategic weapon,” and appeared alongside DPRK leader Kim Jong Un when he reportedly climbed the politically symbolic Mount Paektu on a white horse.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Gwan, vice minister of the People’s Armed Forces, was also reported to have been by-elected as an alternate member of the Political Bureau along with Pak. KCNA listed Kim Jong Gwan’s nomination before Pak’s.
Kim Jong Gwan was reported by the party daily, the Rodong Sinmun, to have greeted Kim Jong Un on-site in 2018 when the North Korean leader inspected the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area, a major development project that the country aims to finish by April 15 this year.
CABINET, ECONOMY, AND FOREIGN AFFAIRS
During the party plenum, Kim Jong Un reportedly said that “the Cabinet is the nucleus of the state economic work system.”
He called for strengthening the “Cabinet responsibility system,” and said there are “serious issues that need urgent solution” in how the country manages its economic work.
A personnel shuffle among cabinet officials appeared to correspond to those concerns.
Among the three people by-elected as full members of the party Central Committee’s Political Bureau was Kim Tok Hun, the country’s cabinet vice premier.
Meanwhile, Kim Il Chol was appointed as “vice premier of the Cabinet and concurrently chairman of the State Planning Commission.” The latter position was until recently reported to be held by Ro Tu Chol.
Also notable was the promotion of Kim Hyong Jun as an alternate member of the Political Bureau, vice chairman of the party Central Committee, and department director of the party Central Committee.
In May last year, Kim Hyong Jun, the former vice foreign minister and ambassador to Russia, was reported to be stepping down from his post in Moscow to return to Pyongyang, and his latest promotion may imply an increased role in the DPRK’s foreign policy.
Multiple South Korean media outlets are foreseeing, in terms of a generational change, the possibility of Kim succeeding the high-ranking official Ri Su Yong’s role in the party. Ri is one of North Korea’s most senior diplomats, and is 79 years old.
OTHERS: KIM YO JONG AND PAK PONG JU
Among four officials “appointed” as first vice-department directors of the party Central Committee, two notable figures were Kim Yo Jong — the North Korean leader’s sister — and Ri Yong Sik.
“It is unclear which departments Kim and Ri have been transferred to, as they already were first vice directors of the party Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD),” Lee, the senior analyst with NK Pro, told NK News.
She added, however, that it is likely that Kim Yo Jong has moved on to the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), with Ri taking Kim’s portfolio in the PAD.
“Kim Yo Jong’s public profile went up since late July [last year], and if Kim has moved to the OGD, it may explain her elevated profile in recent months,” noted Lee.
North Korean state media in August last year started listing Kim Yo Jong ahead of Jo Yong Won, first vice director of the OGD, while late 2019 also saw Kim Yo Jong’s increased appearances during weapons tests.
Meanwhile, Pak Pong Ju, a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the party Central Committee and currently one of the most high-level officials in North Korea, was seen on KCTV on Wednesday in a wheelchair, putting silence to speculations regarding his absence on state media for the first three days of plenum coverage.
Among the newly appointed cadres of North Korea’s state organs was Kim Sung Jin, who appeared to be replacing Jang Chol in his role as president of the State Academy of Sciences.
The possibility of Jang Chol’s demotion was reported by Daily NK earlier this week: an anonymous North Korean source said that Jang was fired and sent to a provincial area, reportedly taking responsibility for “not properly executing the government’s policy on science and technology” and lacking outcome, despite increased government investment in the area.
The KCNA report on the party plenum also mentioned promotions that may be related to the country’s newly rebuilt Samjiyon City, in the North’s Ryanggang Province. The massive Samjiyon project was hailed in state media as “the utopia town under socialism.”
Ri Sang Won, previously chairman of the Ryanggang Provincial party Committee, was elected as chairman of the Inspection Commission of the party Central Committee, while Kim Yong Hwan was appointed to Ri’s previous role in Ryanggang Province.
Overall, around two-thirds of the party Central Committee department directors — ten among what is presumed to be around 15 people in total — were newly appointed, including new department directors such as Choe Pu Il, the Minister of People’s Security.
Vice director at the party Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) Hyon Song Wol, first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui, and chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland Ri Son Gwon, were also spotted in the KCTV broadcast of the party plenum.
Edited by Jacob Fromer