North Korean authorities have ordered the public to hand over photos containing the image of a former military official who fell from political grace in a bid to purge him from the country’s historical record, according to sources in the country and in China.
The move comes amid reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has named a hardliner general, Kim Kyok Sik, to the post of Armed Forces Minister as part of a broad reshuffle of the military.
North Korean sources say efforts are underway to tarnish the image of former Chief of the Army General Staff Ri Yong Ho, who was abruptly removed from all military duties in July.
A relatively new general, Hyon Yong Chol, was made vice marshal in the 1.2 million strong Korean People's Army—among the world's largest—to replace Ri.
The high-level political shuffle has led to widespread speculation of a possible power scramble in Pyongyang—a theory that has been bolstered by reports that it is now forbidden to own photos of the ex-military leader, which are considered treasured keepsakes by the public.
“There is a rumor that the regime has branded him an ‘anti-party reactionary’ since August,” a North Korean source who now lives in China told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The party council of the North Korean army first started to collect pictures of him [then],” the source said.
He said he was aware of at least one soldier in North Korea’s North Pyongan province, near the border with China, who had been told to submit a photo he had hung on his wall which included Ri’s image to local government officials and that it had not been returned.
“I don’t know if he will get the picture back with Ri Yong Ho’s face destroyed or if he will never get it back,” the source said.
The regime is not only confiscating photos of Ri from members of the army, but from regular civilians as well, he said.
“As Ri Yong Ho has participated in a lot of ceremonies, there are many pictures of him with ordinary people,” the source said.
The decision to destroy photos of the former army chief is similar to one taken by the North Korean regime in 1969 following the purge of Kim Chang Bong, then-minister of national defense, and Hue Bong Hak, general political director of the military at the time.
Following their removal, authorities collected photos containing images of the two disgraced officials and returned them with their faces blotted out by black ink.
The source in China said that he knew of workers from an ammunition factory that considered a photo of them with Ri “their treasure” who are now “feeling emptiness and fear” after it was seized by authorities.
“It will take considerable time and labor to remove all photos with Ri Young Ho’s face and the action will have a bad effect on [morale].”
Ri Yong Ho’s hasty removal from power has left North Koreans confused, the source said.
Once powerful enough to stand at the helm of former leader Kim Jong Il’s funeral cortege following his death last year, Ri was suddenly branded a reactionary and the public has little understanding of why.
“Residents of Pyongyang are saying that if Ri is a reactionary, he must have done something bad to [current leader] Kim Jong Un while he was close to him, but nothing happened, so they cannot understand why he was purged,” the source said.
The youngest of three children, Kim Jong Un—widely believed to be in his late 20’s—assumed power from his father Kim Jong Il in December after the elder Kim died of a suspected heart attack.
Another source in North Pyongan province, who also spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that rumors were swirling about Ri’s fate.
“Even party officials don’t know where Ri Yong Ho is now. Some say that he was put to death and others say he is undergoing medical care for a cerebral hemorrhage,” he said.
“It seems there is no possibility that Ri Yong Ho will return.”
According to Kim Yong Hyun, a professor at Dongkuk University in South Korea, Kim Jong Un ordered the collection of Ri’s photos as part of increased public security measures meant to address the rumors surrounding the former military leader’s removal from power.
“The collection is related to making the Kim Jong Un system sturdy through strong internal unity and by minimizing any anti-government movements,” he said.
In late October, while addressing officials at Ri Yong Ho’s former school—Kim Il Sung Military University—Kim Jong Un said that North Korea has no need for people who are disloyal to the regime, regardless of their military aptitude.
Kim Kyok Sik's appointment, according to South Korea’s officials Thursday, is the latest move in a military reshuffle that began earlier in the year with the purge of Ri.
"It could be the most significant move after Ri's dismissal to strengthen [Kim Jong Un's] grip on the military," a South Korean official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency.
The post of the Minister of Armed Forces is considered subordinate to the Army Chief of General Staff and its head of the Political Department.
But the appointment is indication of a top army general being rewarded for loyalty to the new leader as he tries to cement his power, Reuters quoted South Korean officials as saying.
Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Ju Hyeon Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.