North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have demoted one of his top officials and sent him to a rural collective farm for reeducation, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Tuesday.
If confirmed, the banishment of Choe Ryong Hae would be the latest in a series of executions, purges and dismissals that Kim has orchestrated in what analysts say is a further strengthening of his grip on power since taking over in late 2011.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) said that Choe’s demotion was related to the alleged collapse of a water tunnel at a power station. Choe was reportedly responsible for the construction of the power station in North Korea’s northeastern Ryanggang province. The NIS said Choe and Kim were also at odds over youth-related policies, according to Shin’s office.
Choe was a rising star after Kim inherited power upon the death of his dictator father Kim Jong Il. He held a series of top posts, including the top political officer in the Korean People’s Army which once made him North Korea’s second most powerful official following the 2013 execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek.
His influence is believed to have diminished in April 2014 when his top army post was found to have been given to Hwang Pyong So, who is now widely considered to be the North’s No. 2 official.
Choe was still considered one of Kim’s top aides and held a number of important posts, including member of the powerful Political Bureau of the ruling Worker’s Party and secretary of the party’s Central Committee. The NIS told lawmakers that Kim is eventually expected to rehabilitee Choe, but didn’t say when.
In a report published on the country’s May Day celebrations, the North Korean government mouthpiece KCNA news agency named Hwang Pyong-so, one of Kim Jong Un’s closest confidantes, as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army.
The role is the top military position after Kim, who is supreme commander of the armed forces.
Previously, Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae held the position. While in the job, Choe was widely regarded by North Korea watchers as second only to Kim in terms of political clout. However, speculation about his position has been rife following reports that he may have been arrested, some months ago.
In the same piece that effectively coronated Hwang, Choe was referred to as a party secretary in charge of labor groups — a relatively minor position.
A Unification Ministry source told the New York Times that it is unlikely that Choe has been purged.
Seasoned North Korea watchers echo the line. An editorial on the independent specialist site NK News said that “it appears … Choe is not being purged so much as being gradually phased out of power,” while 38 North said that the news showed “so far no indication that it represents another broad purge such as occurred with Jang Song Thaek last December.”
A senior North Korean official, believed to be the No. 2 in the country after leader Kim Jong Un, has reappeared in official television footage, belying reports he had fallen victim to a fresh purge in the isolated nation.
Choe Ryong Hae is the influential head of the political wing of North Korea’s military and appears to have risen to become the second most powerful person in the country after the execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle, last year.
Speculation in recent weeks that Choe had also been purged triggered a wave of speculation that Kim was intent on shaking up North Korea’s elite and that competing factions around the 31-year old leader were a destabilising force in the North.
Choe’s father was a partisan who fought alongside the young Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.
In addition to the public title as the chief political operative for the North’s 1.2-million-strong army, Choe holds a seat in the powerful standing committee of the ruling Workers’ Party politburo shared only by Kim himself and two figurehead old guard members.
Choe is also one of the two vice chairmen of the ruling Workers’ Party central military commission, a post that encompasses two of the most powerful institutions, the party and the military. He was made a vice marshal of the military this year.
In June, Choe was Kim’s special envoy to meet President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s only major ally. The meeting followed displeasure expressed by Beijing after North Korea launched a missile last year and conducted a third nuclear test.