North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Personnel Shuffles in the first half of 2010

With the deaths of Ri Je Gang and KPA Artillery Commander Col. Gen. Ri Jong Bu, eleven (11) members of North Korea’s leadership have either passed away, been replaced or disappeared from public life in the first half of 2010.   It does not account for the announcement of a new position, such as “director of the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office”  (Jang Pyong Gyu) in the April 2010 2nd Session of the 12th SPA, or an appointment to a long-vacant position, such as the migration of Kim Yong Il from MOFA to director of the CC KWP International Department in January.

All of those who died or have moved on were either key supporters of KJI’s succession, or played some function in the regime’s continuity.  All of them were reported or observed to have escorted or appeared with KJI in the last five (5) years.  Five of these personalities had direct ties to KJI’s Personal Secretariat, and hold, or held, the powerful title of OGD Deputy Director.  One of these personalities (VMAR Pak Ki So) was related to KJI.  The disappearance or death of members of the senior leadership are an indication of regime dynamics, however it is not clear what is in play here.

A book-length historic study could be done on car accident culture in the DPRK.  On one hand, a car accident, heart attack or “incurable illness” may be as reported.  The side effects of the elite’s party and social culture–drunk driving fatalities (some elites seem to refuse chauffeur service), alcohol-related disease–have thinned the ranks of KJI’s trusted lieutenants in his Personal Secretariat.  On the other hand, the car accident has also been a euphemism in the regime’s official obituaries, and can indicate either the beginning, or end, of a purge.

The events in North Korea’s political culture in the first half of 2010 find their analogue in an essay by Jei Guk Jeon, written at the KJI era’s official dawn in 1998:

The “delicate” balance between old and young elites and/or truce between hawks and doves may not last indefinitely.  Ironically, thanks to Kim’s inclusive politics, some “unreliable” elements continue to survive in the ruling circle. Herein lies the seed of potential cleavages and dissidence. As long as Kim’s balancing act continues to work, the power elite will remain openly loyal to him. However, if the balancing act breaks down, the power elite is likely to fragment and may turn against Kim Jong Il.  For example, if the balancer disappears from the scene—perhaps due to an accident, illness, or for any other reason, the delicate balance he has devised may evaporate.

Below, in chronological order, are the names of the eleven personalities who have vacated their positions or taken on new responsibilities, the circumstances behind the vacancy and the replacement, if one has been named.

VMAR Pak Ki So

1. Name: VMAR Pak Ki So

Position:Member, KWP Central Military Committee

Circumstances: VMAR Pak passed away in January, 2010.  He was effectively retired, but participated in some public events, such as the election of SPA deputies (delegates) in March 2009.

Replaced by: Not known

Ri Chol-bong is 2nd L in this image from August 2009 (Photo: KCNA).

2. Name: Ri Chol Bong

Position: Chief Secretary for the Kangwon KWP Provincial Committee

Circumstances: 25 December 2009 auto accident in Pyongyang

Replaced by: Former Ministry of Forestry political manager Paek Kye Ryong was conveyed by North Korean media in February, 2010.

Kim Tong Un

3. Name: Kim Tong Un

Position: Director of Office #39 and chief executive of the Third Floor

Circumstances: He was effectively banned from traveling to the EU, along with other NK officials believed to be involved in weapons proliferation.

Replaced by: Long-time deputy Jon Il Chun was reported to have escorted KJI on guidance tours.

Pak Nam-gi, 2nd L, with Kim Jong-il in October 2009 (Photo: KCNA).

4. Name: Pak Nam Gi

Position: Director of the CC KWP Financial Planning Department

Circumstances: Pak was reportedly singled out as a scapegoat for the country’s 2010 currency denomination, and that he was either executed (along with a deputy State Planning Commissioner) or undergoing reeducation or internally exiled.

Replaced by: Among KJI’s entourage (which is to say officials who appear to take guidance on the economy from KJI) are CC KWP Deputy Director Han Kwang Sang, sister and CC KWP Light Industry Director Kim Kyong Hui and Jon Il Chun.

Choe Ik Gyu in April 2009 (Photo: KCNA)

5. Name: Choe Ik Gyu

Position: CC KWP Director of Propaganda and Agitation (PAD)

Circumstances: Not known.  There were rumors of Mr. Choe having poor health.

Replaced by: Former Minister of Culture Kang Nung Su in early Febuary, 2010.   Kang Nung Su was publicly replaced as Minister of Culture by novelist An Tong Chun in January, 2010, and later escorted KJI identified in the NK media as a CC KWP director.  After Kang’s appointment, there was a management shuffle at the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and Rodong Sinmun, both directly subordinate to PAD.

Ri Chol on 7 December 2009 (Photo: Yonhap)

6. Name: Ri Chol

Position: DPRK Ambassador to the Permanent UN Mission Geneva and DPRK Ambassador to Switzerland

Circumstances:  Officially left his concurrent long-time diplomatic positions at the end of March, 2010.  Ri was directly tied to KJI’s Personal Secretariat and managed personal and financial affairs for the Kim Family, as well as serving as the country’s regional boss, in Europe.

Replaced bySo Se Pyong, was appointed 6 April 2010 by the SPA. So Se Pyong was previously the country’s ambassador to Iran.

Ri Yong Chol (1st from R) receiving instructions from KJI in 2005 (Photo: KCNA)

7. Name: Ri Yong Chol

Position: Deputy Director of the Organization and Guidance Department (primarily the KPA and MPAF GPD)

Circumstances: Passed away 26 April 2010 from what KCNA reported to be “a heart attack.”

Replaced by: Not known

Kim Jung Rin on the rostrum at a reporting meeting in April 2010 (Photo: KCTV)

8. Name: Kim Jung Rin

Position: KWP Secretary of Workers’ Organizations

Circumstances: Passed away on 28 April 2010 from what KCNA reported to be “cardiac infraction.”

Replaced by: Given KJI’s history of leaving vacant 1st-tier positions (which is to say positions with the rank of Party Secretary or Department Director), it is likely no immediate replacement will be forthcoming.

VMAR Kim (1st R) attending Kim Jung Rin's wake in May 2010 (Photo: KCNA)

9. Name: VMAR Kim Il Chol

Positions: National Defense Commission Member (previously Vice Chairman) and Vice Minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces

Circumstances: Publicly retired (or was compelled so to do) on 14 May 2010. VMAR Kim escorted KJI on several visits in 2010, and appeared with him at the March 2010 rally in Hamhung.

Replaced by: It is possible that the NDC membership vacancy created by VMAR Kim’s retirement will be filled at the 3rd session of the 12th SPA in June, 2010.

Col. Gen. Ri Jong Bu (Photo: KCNA)

10. Name: Colonel General Ri Jong Bu

Position: Commanding Officer of the KPA Artillery Corps

Circumstances: Died from undisclosed causes,  was announced by KCNA on 2 June 2010.  Col. Gen. Ri had been in his position for a short time, believed to have been appointed in early 2009.  He was reported to have escorted KJI on at least four (4) occasions in 2009.  Prior to his appointment as artillery commander, Col. Gen. Ri was commanding officer of the Wonsan Corps.  The KPA’s corps commanders are politically powerful in regime politics, with upward mobility in their careers.  Corps commanders can report to and receive guidance directly from Kim Jong Il through the General Staff Department’s Operations Bureau.

Replaced by: Given recent personnel history in the KPA command, Col. Gen. Ri Yong Bu’s replacement likely has the rank of Colonel General or at least Lieutenant General (chungjang), and may likely be drawn from late 2nd or 3rd generation KPA officers.

Ri Je Gang (3rd R) posed in this commemorative photograph with KJI and other core leadership at the monumental tower to the Battle of Pochonbo in May 2010 (Photo: KCNA)

11. Name: Ri Je Gang

Position: Senior Deputy Director of the Organization and Guidance Department

Circumstances: Reported by KCBS to have died in an automobile accident on 2 June 2010.  Mr. Ri was a close aide to KJI.  He was an institutional creature of the overlapping bureaucracies in the Central Party, inhabiting the interstices of OGD, the Personal Secretariat and the State Security Department.  Mr.  Ri routinely escorted KJI on guidance tours.  He was reputedly close to KJI’s 4th wife Ko Yong Hui, and numerous reports place him as a key backer of Kim Jong Un’s hereditary succession.

Replaced by: It was suggested in Daily NK that Mr. Ri’s role will be assumed by Jang Song Taek, his rumored rival.

An affiliate of 38 North