Choe, Hwang, and the Unpredictable Chief

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

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