North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Choe Ryong Hae Taken Down a Notch

Choe Ryong Hae (2nd left) attends a floral wreath laying ceremony with other members of the DPRK central leadership at the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery in Pyongyang on 14 August 2022 (Photos: KCNA).

Supreme People’s Assembly [SPA] Presidium Chairman Choe Ryong Hae (Ch’oe Ryong-hae) appears to have been taken down a peg in the regime’s formal hierarchy.  In a 15 August (Monday) DPRK state media report on the 14 August (Sunday) central leadership visit to the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery for Liberation Day, Choe was mentioned after DPRK Premier Kim Tok Hun (Kim Tok-hun).  Choe was previously identified ahead of Kim in May 2022.

This is not the first observed occasion at which Choe appeared to have been dropped in the official rankings of North Korean political culture.  In Korean Central Television [KCTV] coverage of the 8th Conference of War Veterans, Choe was shown third, again after Kim Tok Hun.  As it stands the regime’s top three are:  Jo Yong Won (Cho Yo’ng-wo’n) –> Kim Tok Hun –> Choe Ryong Hae.

Pyongyang watchers should not be ringing the final bell on Choe Ryong Hae quite yet.  During the last two decades, his career has ebbed and flowed.  He was dropped as head of the Youth League during the late 1990s amid allegations of malfeasance.   He came back during the mid-2000s as deputy (vice) director of the Workers’ Party of Korea [WPK] General Affairs Department [GAD] and late appointed Chief Secretary of the North Hwanghae WPK Committee. In 2014, he was removed from office as director of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] General Political Bureau amid, again, allegations of malfeasance.  He later resurfaced as WPK Secretary with the portfolio for Workers’ and Social Organizations.  During his latter personnel shuffle, it may not have been any type of corruption that led to his migration, but that he ran afoul of other entrenched personalities and interests within the core elite and had to move on.

There are a couple of analytical strings we might follow on Choe.  First, Choe may have tested the tolerance of the supreme leadership for the final time.  Choe Ryong Hae is a regime princeling, a charter member of a cohort we might call the Partisan Pluses.  With that comes a certain lifestyle and way of being that the Suryo’ng can and will tolerate, but only to a certain point.  A core elite like this might accept too much consideration money from other elites or host one too many high-end banquets.  But this can breed what WPK ideology calls “formalism” which can lead to fledgling alternate power centers which the Suryo’ng can not have.

Choe Ryong Hae (background, center) presides over a meeting of the SPA standing committee on 7 August 2022 (Photo: KCNA).

The second and more probable analytical string is that the SPA which Choe technically leads is dropping in precedence within the regime and DPRK political culture.  If we think back to the Kim Jong Il days, the head of the SPA, Kim Yong Nam (Kim Yo’ng-nam), was the first DPRK elite called or named after the Suryo’ng.  In 2022 with “the restoration” or the WPK (party) authority, the first official called is Jo Yong Won in his capacity as senior party secretary and head of the Organization Guidance Department [OGD].  With Kim Tok Hun now being called second, it can be inferred that the DPRK Cabinet has supplanted the SPA as the DPRK Government’s lead organization.  This would certainly give a publicity push to the Cabinet which has been given prominence in meeting the goals and aspirations promulgated during the 8th Party Congress and subsequent political gatherings where domestic policy has been addressed.

Another tell-tale sign that the SPA is being eclipsed came during the 5th Central Committee plenum in June.  During the plenary meeting, the WPK Central Committee undertook personnel appointments of DPRK Cabinet Ministers.  This is, legally and traditionally, the provenance of the SPA Presidium or SPA sessions (even though the reality is such personnel appointments pass through the CC, WPK, before they even hit an SPA agenda).  When the 5th plenum assembled back in June, the DPRK was on a crisis footing.  As such, recess Cabinet appointments via the Central Committee would make sense.

The full SPA gathers on 7 September.  At that time we will know if Choe Ryong Hae stays or his political adversaries have finally dislodged him.

An affiliate of 38 North