Choe, Hwang, and the Unpredictable Chief

Lee Sang Yong  |  2014-07-09 19:15


The highest Party and military elite: home of intense and frequently violent conflict in any autocracy.
| Image: Rodong Sinmun
The demotion of Choe Ryong Hae to Party secretary from his previous position at the head of the Chosun People’s Army General Political Department was allegedly due to a corrupt lifestyle replete with slush funds and womanizing, a source reported to Daily NK on July 9th.

The well-informed source revealed, “Rumor has it that Choe Ryong Hae got entangled in money and women problems, and that he started stashing slush funds in a secret Chinese bank account in the late 1990s.” He went on, “This amounted to $10m USD, and when Kim Jong Eun discovered it he lost trust in Choe and the management of his own military funds, so he replaced him with Hwang Pyong So.”

Choe, who was born in South Hwanghae Province in 1950, is the son of famed guerrilla revolutionary Choe Hyun, who fought alongside Kim Il Sung in the hills of Manchuria. As a result, and despite a stark lack of military experience, he rose to prominence in the system set up by Kim Jong Il to guide Kim Jong Eun’s elevation after his own death. In 2010 Choe was promoted to KPA General and became a Central Party Committee secretary, an alternate member of the Party Politburo, and a member of the Party Central Military Commission.

In 2012 he was again promoted, becoming a KPA Vice-Marshal, as well as deputy head of the Party Central Military Commission and a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Moreover, he was given control of the KPA General Political Department. With the death of Jang Song Taek in December, he appeared set to naturally adopt the “regime no. 2” position in the eyes of the outside world.

However, things began to change abruptly in April this year, four months after Jang’s execution. Choe began to accompany Kim Jong Eun on fewer and fewer of his onsite inspections, and then got demoted out of the military, becoming a Party secretary.

Since then, there has been speculation that the sudden demotion concerns Choe’s father, Choe Hyun, whose exceptional record as a partisan guerrilla presents a challenge to the official narrative, in which the entire guerrilla war against Japan was won because of the faultless command of Kim Il Sung.

“Kim Jung Eun was probably uncomfortable seeing Choe at the center of power because of his background connection to the partisan revolution,” the source said. “He must have decided that Choe could be a threat to his rule if his faction were allowed to obtain greater power.”

In accordance with this assessment, Kim appointed close associate Hwang Pyong So to the sensitive KPA General Political Department role, which gives him control over the organization, ideology and personnel of the military. According to the source, “In March this year, Kim called Hwang and Department of State Security chief Kim Won Hong to his office to discuss different options to deal with Choe.”

In terms of Choe’s response to the gathering clouds, “In April he employed his diabetes as a strategic pretext to go into hospital and lay low. He even went to Kim Won Hong, with whom he was not on particularly good terms, and told him that he would resign.”

According to the source, Choe and Hwang are in an ongoing tussle to obtain Kim Jong Eun’s trust. “After the reshuffle, Hwang convened his closest associates for drinks and ordered them to ‘keep close watch on Choe’ and ‘be prepared for all eventualities,” he said.

As a result, the Pyongyang top elite is embroiled in an intensifying power struggle, and this is being exacerbated by increased dissatisfaction at the leadership offered by Kim Jong Eun. Kim, who is reliant on the imposition of Machiavellian fear to maintain his political dominance, is widely regarded as capricious, unpredictable, and unreliable. Though this may be a deliberate strategy on Kim's part, it does not please those below him, where it translates into mortal insecurity. 

“Choe, who carries the hopes of the veteran military men, and Hwang, who represents the Party Organization [and Guidance] Department, are in a quietly growing power struggle,” the source alleged. “If power were to concentrate in Hwang, in the end he could be executed, just like Jang Song Taek. Either way, elites don’t know what line to stand in to survive, and they blame Kim Jong Eun.”

 
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2014.10.15
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