Assessing key players in the power struggle: Hwang Pyong So, Choe Ryong Hae and Kim Yong Chol

The Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS) of South
Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), has reported that a conflict
between two senior North Korean officials has grown severe. A number of
high-profile defectors in South Korea including Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s
former ambassador to London, and Ko Yong Hwan, a former North Korean diplomat,
are now working for the INSS.


The INSS researchers have reported that Choe Ryong Hae, vice-chairman
of the Central Committee of the WPK and member of the Presidium of the
Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK, is looking for an
opportunity to exact revenge on Hwang Pyong So due to the latter’s role in his
dismissal as director of the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) General Political
Bureau (GPB). Hwang, who was first deputy of the Central Committee’s
Organization and Guidance Department at the time, reportedly told Kim Jong Un
that Choe Ryong Hae was organizing factions within the military, leading to his
dismissal and replacement by Hwang in 2014.  


Accordingly, it is being said among North Korean officials
that Choe would attempt to turn the tables on Hwang if an opportunity presented
itself. As Choe once held the position of head of the KPA’s GPB he is aware of
the fact that the position can be used to stage a coup via the mobilization of
political, military, and security assets. Choe is likely to use this political
threat against Hwang, as Hwang did in 2014.


A coup in North Korea remains unlikely


North Korea analysts generally do not believe that a
military coup is likely in North Korea. In order to stage a coup, a critical
number of soldiers must join forces. But the North Korean military is strictly
controlled by the Party, rendering the ability to conspire extremely difficult.
Party organs embedded in each military unit are tasked with thoroughly
monitoring the soldiers. In this way, the North Korean military is under the
strict control of the KPA GPB.


However, the Korean People’s Army’s General Political Bureau
may decide to switch loyalties at some stage. The INSS report insinuates such a
possibility, citing a growing awareness among North Korean officials that the
GPB director is capable of staging a coup.


However, the director would need the unwavering support of
key players in order to succeed in a coup. North Korea is a society in which
people are required to monitor each other, and if evidence of disloyalty
emerges, executions are likely to follow.


Power struggles lead to rising instability


The INSS report claims that power struggles between the
political elites in North Korea are prevalent. The report reveals that Kim Yong
Chol, head of the United Front Department, and Kim Won Hong, former head of the
Ministry of State Security, as well as Choe Ryong Hae and Hwang Pyong So, are
embroiled in factional struggles. Political instability in South Korea
concludes at worst with resignation or imprisonment, however, in North Korea, a
power struggle is a matter of life and death.


There is no evidence that such power struggles are a threat
to the dominance of Kim Jong Un, but rather, they are aimed at the acquisition
of more power for specific factions under his reign. In fact, Kim Jong Un
likely understands that such rivalries serve to strengthen his own authority.


However, the reality that some factions are in constant
conflict increases the possibility that the system may begin to crack. If Kim
Jong Un fails to maintain some level of cooperation between senior cadres, a
serious crisis may arise. For this reason, there exist diverse opinions on the long-term
future of the Kim Jong Un regime. 

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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