The December plenum of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party (WPK) saw a major reshuffle in its leadership, and it now appears certain that O Su Yong was removed from his position as party vice-chair and department director. He now appears to be a minister or, though less likely, vice-premier.
This could hint at further change in North Korea’s economic policy, which has been under increasing pressure since the country’s overseas workers were repatriated late last year in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2397.
O Su Yong has been a pillar of the DPRK leadership — and its economic policy — for years. He was appointed to all top bodies short of the Presidium of the party’s Politburo at the 2016 WPK congress: vice chairman of the Executive Policy Bureau, a full member of the Political Bureau and Central Committee, and head of a party department.
He had, however, held most of these positions before. In April 2014, he was appointed chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) Budget Committee, signaling he was now in charge of North Korea’s economic policy.
The next month, state media also revealed that O was secretary of the Central Committee, likely overseeing all economic departments of the party.
By November 2015, North Korean media had referred to him as full member of the Political Bureau.
This promotion may also have occurred in early 2014 — a funeral committee in July of that year saw him sharply rise in rank compared to a similar list from December 2013.
That he was demoted during the December plenary was already suggested from a group photograph of officials released on January 1. A reporter from Yonhap News had already speculated as much the very same day, but both Yonhap and South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) have yet to reflect this in their databases and organogram.
In this photograph, O Su Yong was still seated in the first row, reserved for full members of the Political Bureau. But he was seated at the far end, meaning that he was last or at second last in the ranking (depending on which side the ranking ended).
A list of the funeral committee for Hwang Sun Hui on January 18 made clear he was second last. The names in this list matched those featured in the first row of the December party plenum photo, with O Su Yong ranking above Jong Kyong Thaek, last known to be Minister of State Security.
That O Su Yong was not ranked next to the other vice chairmen suggested that he had been removed from this position. This had also not changed by the Political Bureau meeting on February 28, as a photo of attendees showed.
O’s successor is known: Kim Tok Hun. Four new vice chairmen were appointed at the December plenum, and it was clear for three of them who they replaced. Ri Il Hwan replaced the previous head of propaganda Pak Kwang Ho, Ri Pyong Chol succeeded Thae Jong Su in dealing with the military, and Kim Hyong Jun took the place of Ri Su Yong in leading the party’s foreign policy.
Kim Tok Hun’s predecessor was less clear, but his new rank in the January funeral list and photographs at the other two aforementioned events made it clear that he had taken the place of O Su Yong.
The top party officials after Presidium members Choe Ryong Hae and Pak Pong Ju usually are listed in the following order: premier, followed by vice chairs for organization, propaganda, international, cadres, military and economy.
The new head of foreign relations, Kim Hyong Jun, was only elevated to full member of the Political Bureau in February and for that reason appeared lower than Ri Su Yong had before.
Absent this brief exception in early 2020, this ranking was kept and Kim Tok Hun appeared in this position for the January funeral. Seating in photographs might not reflect this exact ranking as several rules are used there especially for the first row.
The most important officials are always seated in the center with the remaining officials following alternately to the left and right. But this rule is often broken through grouping of officials.
In the December photograph, Ri Man Gon and Ri Il Hwan are seated next to each other, while in February Choe Hwi also had joined this group and was not seated on the other side.
What position O Su Yong currently occupies remains a mystery. Looking at how he has been ranked and seated in the last three events he participated in, he also is no longer a department director. Choe Pu Il left the Ministry of People Security to become a department director in December and he is ranked just below all party vice chairs.
But O Su Yong was not seated or ranked close to him and instead listed below Kim Su Gil, director of the KPA General Political Bureau, and Thae Hyong Chol, vice-chair of the SPA Presidium. Kim Tok Hun likely was promoted to both O Su Yong’s vice-chair and director positions.
That O Su Yong was still ranked above Jong Kyong Thaek, the Minister of State Security, points to him still holding a position ranked slightly higher. Ro Tu Chol (vice-premier), Ri Yong Ho (foreign minister) as well as Choe Pu Il were previously ranked in this area between Kim Su Gil and Jong Kyong Thaek.
An appointment as vice-premier would be possible — he could have simply switched places with Kim Tok Hun, who had been vice-premier until his promotion in the December plenum.
But the report on the plenum only mentioned Kim Il Chol as having been promoted to vice-premier. O Su Yong still could have been appointed to this position prior to this, but this appears rather unlikely.
The January funeral list also listed the known seven vice-premiers, a number that has not changed for years.
This leaves the rather long list of more than forty ministries and commissions to look for his new appointment. Many of their heads still have to be mentioned in state media following the December plenum and, at this point, his position cannot be narrowed down any further.
The December plenum of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party (WPK) saw a major reshuffle in its leadership, and it now appears certain that O Su Yong was removed from his position as party vice-chair and department director. He now appears to be a minister or, though less likely, vice-premier.
This could hint at further change in North Korea's economic policy, which has been under increasing pressure since the country's overseas workers were repatriated late last year in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2397.
Martin Weiser received his MA from Korea University in 2014 with a thesis explaining North Korea’s changing human rights policy. He has continued researching North Korea’s political history as an independent researcher since then. His writings have appeared on SinoNK and in 2018 an article on the country’s legal system appeared in the European Journal of Korean Studies.