Ties With North Korea’s First Lady May Have Helped Reinstate Number Two Leader

nk-asian-games-incheon-oct-2014.jpg Hwang Pyong So (L) and Choe Ryong Hae (R) wave and applaud during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, Oct. 4, 2014.

The wife of North Korea’s former number two official Choe Ryong Hae may have used her connections with the country's powerful First Lady to have her husband reinstated, according to a North Korea expert citing a source close to the regime.

Choe, 64, was replaced by Hwang Pyong So as director of the Korean People’s Army’s powerful General Political Bureau—a position widely viewed as second-in-command after leader Kim Jong Un—according to a May 1 report by the official Korean Central News Agency.

But Yoshihiro Makino, a visiting scholar and North Korea expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, told RFA’s Korean Service that Choe’s wife, Kang Gyung Sil, may have used her ties to Kim’s wife Ri Sol Ju to propel him back to his former position.

“Kang, who hails from Chongjin in North Hamgyong province, has used ‘royal family’ connections,” including with Ri and Kim’s late mother Ko Young Hui, to return Choe to power, Makino said, citing a source with knowledge of the regime.

Ties “through kinship with Ko Young Hui, combined with Choe’s influence” may have helped, he said.

“My source told me that Kang Gyung Sil is leading inner-circle gatherings among the spouses of North Korea’s high-ranking officials, as she keeps close relationships with [ruling Korean Workers’ Party] secretary Kang Sok Ju’s wife as well as Ri Sol Ju.”

Personal connections

Makino said that an increasing number of officials in North Korea are attempting to use their personal connections to advance their positions in the country, particularly through Ri, a former singer.

“Nowadays, there are more people in North Korea who are attempting to exercise influence using personal relationships, especially with Kim Jong Un’s wife,” the North Korea expert said, citing his source.

“I also heard that it has created concerns among the public who fear it could cause social unrest.”

He said that an increasing number of people leveraging their connections to Ri instead of Kim could undermine the leader’s authority.

Recent announcements

A number of recent official announcements and appearances by Choe, who now serves as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, suggest that he may have reclaimed his influence within the elite circle of power in North Korea.

A report last week by South Korea’s Kyunghyang Shinmun cited the KCNA as placing Choe ahead of Hwang in an article listing a group of officials who accompanied Kim to watch a women’s football match at the May 1 Stadium in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang.

Kyunghyang also cited a related article which referred to Choe as a member of the Politburo Presidium of the Workers’ Party, saying that experts viewed the promotion as an advance in the line of power ahead of Hwang to reclaim the de facto number two position in the regime.

The report quoted Chung Sung-jang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, as saying that he knew of no precedent where a party secretary was also a member of the Politburo Presidium, other than Kim Jong Il—Kim’s father and the former leader of North Korea who died in December 2011.

“This confirms that Kim Jong Un’s trust in Choe is very special,” he said.

Execution and delegation

A report by The Diplomat quoted North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), a group of North Korean dissidents based in South Korea, as saying that Choe had last month led the execution of Kim Kyong Ok, the first deputy director of the powerful Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party, along with some of his aides.

NKIS told The Diplomat that Kim Jong Un had allegedly purged Kim Kyong Ok over concerns that the Workers’ Party official was rapidly expanding his influence in North Korea.

NKIS said Kim Jong Un had entrusted Choe to eliminate all possible threats to his power because he does not have an extensive personal support base within the regime, and therefore is not himself a threat to the leader.

Choe also joined a delegation led by Hwang Pyong So and including director of the United Front Department of the Chosun Workers’ Party Kim Yang Gon, in a surprise trip ostensibly to view the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in Incheon on Oct. 4.

The high-profile visit sparked widespread speculation about North Korea’s motives for sending the group, which met with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and director of National Security Kim Kwan-jin.

Reported by Jung Woo Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jung Woo Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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