A central figure in North Korea’s strategic weapons program, Ri Pyong Chol – who also serves as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission – was recently named a marshal of the Korean People’s Army, the military’s highest rank. His elevated status was confirmed during the military parade marking Party Foundation Day on Oct. 10, further suggesting that Ri is becoming a very powerful member of the regime. 

A Daily NK source in North Korea recently speculated that Ri’s rapid rise reflects the regime’s intent to move forward with building and deploying strategic weapons through the development of its military industry despite the difficult economic conditions facing the country. The source also suggested that Ri’s elevated status reaffirms North Korea’s goal to strengthen its defensive military power with a basis on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

“Ri is being praised for hitting all the planning targets in the military industrial sector despite the serious slump in the civilian economy this year,” the source told the Daily NK on Monday. “He’s earning recognition for his broad contributions to the research, development and deployment of strategic weapons.”

Ri’s elevated status was tangible in footage of Oct. 10’s military parade released by the North Korean media, in which he remained at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s side from start to finish. He showed off his presence: When he was not commanding the parade from the front or delivering the final report on the event to Kim, he was laughing and chatting with Kim or sometimes even whispering into his ear.

In fact, Ri’s growing authority became apparent from the end of last year. He was elected to the Politburo, the heart of the Workers’ Party, during the Fifth Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee in late December. He was also named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and a vice chairman of the Central Committee. 

During the 16th Politburo Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee, Ri took his spot at the very center of power when he became a member of the Presidium of the Politburo. His meteoric rise drew attention when, just before Party Foundation Day, he was named marshal during the 19th Politburo Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee, skipping over the rank of vice-marshal. 

meeting wartime territorial waters
Kim Jong Un speaking at the Third Expanded Meeting of the Central Military Commission in December 2019. / Image: Rodong Shinmun

“Ri has been tasked with continuing to creatively execute the indomitable will of the Party – namely, the unyielding pillar line of the Party that [the country’s] military industry and nuclear weapons [development] should advance in parallel, in accordance with trust [endowed by the] Party Center, which has been urging faster preparations to cultivate military capabilities for war through the development and production of more nuclear weapons and missiles.”

The source said observers should note the rise of Kim Jong Sik, the deputy head of the Ministry of Machine-building Industry – which Ri heads – and the “commander” of the technical department of the military’s Strategic Forces. Kim was one of four high-ranking military cadres promoted by order of Kim Jong Un on Oct. 5.

“Kim Jong Sik has contributed to [improving] the readiness and preparing the Strategic Forces’ command for battle through his technical leadership, which has included expanding and increasing the number of Strategic Forces units and deploying weapons – in particular, TEL mobile rockets – in the field based on their topographical characteristics,” said the source. “His promotion is a commendation that reflects the Party’s tenacious will to use the Strategic Forces to develop different kinds of high-end strategic weapons in the past and into the future as part of efforts to improve its military capabilities for war.” 

Kim is reportedly the figure tasked with screening weapons and cultivating the country’s military capabilities for war, having assumed working-level leadership of the Academy of Defense Sciences, which researches and develops strategic weapons, and the Second Economic Committee, which handles weapon production. He works at the Ministry of Machine-building Industry, yet holds a military title as commander of the technical department of the Strategic Forces, according to the source.

“He was given the same rank as his superior, Strategic Forces Commander Kim Jong Gil,” the source pointed out. “Giving him a title equivalent to that of the commander of the Strategic Forces is, given normal personnel procedures, an extremely special case that breaks convention because the commander of the technical department of the Strategic Forces is usually a rank equivalent to lieutenant general.”

Ultimately, Ri and Kim’s sudden rise seems to make even clearer the Workers’ Party’s military policy of preparing for modern warfare through the research, development and field deployment of strategic weapons such as nuclear weapons and missiles.

The source also noted what he called the exceptional rise of Pak Jong Chon, who was granted the title of marshal along with Ri. “This is the first time the chief of staff of the military’s General Staff Department has received the same military rank as the Supreme Commander,” he said. 

“The promotion follows praise that in opposing force exercises inspected by the Supreme Commander [Kim Jong Un] earlier this year – involving artillery and other general military units – the battle readiness of all units met the Supreme Command’s standards,” the source added.   

After being made chief of staff of the General Staff Department in September of last year, Pak was named marshal in May – just five months after being elevated to vice-marshal. The source suggested that elevating his status was aimed at strengthening his authority to boost morale within the military as it took an active role in recovery efforts following recent typhoons.

“Even though the phrase used in the past – military-first politics – has disappeared, the reality is that the [same] political method of burdening the military with everything – from defense of the motherland to socialist construction, and even disaster recovery – must continue,” said the source. 

“In that regard, naming Pak marshal is also an opportunity to get the military to really drive efforts to stabilize the life of the people and restore the civilian economy in areas [damaged by the typhoons] by having them create new miracles and new innovation,” he further speculated.

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.