A high-ranking North Korean military official who defected in November last year is attracting attention after revealing that there is a fierce battle for military influence underway between National Defense Committee Vice Chairman Jang Sung Taek and Choi Ryong Hae, the director of the General Political Department of the Chosun People’s Army.
Choi accompanied Kim Jong Eun on his site visits more than any other official in the first half of this year. During that time, he appeared at 72 out of 95 such public appearances. Conversely, Jang, who appeared the most in 2012, ended up appearing at only 25 in the first half of this year. Various reasons have been given for Jang’s regression, but what appears certain is that Choi’s influence is growing.
Having become a military general in September 2010, Choi Ryong Hae was promoted to his current position in April 2012. He was also appointed to the Party Central Military Commission, thus ascending to nominal second-in-command in the military behind Kim Jong Eun. Lately, he visited China as a special envoy to Kim Jong Eun, proving his cemented position
Choi’s star has risen rapidly off the back of Kim Jong Eun’s trust in him; however, there is considerable resistance to him within the military, according to Daily NK sources. He was made director of the General Political Department to seize control of the military, but to career military personnel his image remains that of a man from the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, a civilian organization.
Choi is having particular difficulty asserting control over the military due to the presence of military personnel with both direct and indirect relationships with Jang, the defector says. There has recently been a general reshuffling of military leaders, while the early removal of both Hyon Yong Chol and Ri Yong Ho are also part of this tussle for power between the two.
The high-ranking military defector said, “The confrontation between Jang Sung Taek and Choi Ryong Hae has been going on ever since they joined forces to remove Ri Yong Ho,” adding, “Clique-expansion is no easy task given the character of the People’s Army, but it’s clear that Choi Ryong Hae is broadening his personal network.”
Choi is acutely aware of Jang’s tight military network, the source added, and is doing his best to expand his influence in the various command structures in response. However, “Jang’s influence in the politically important core units of the armed forces, such as the Escort Bureau, Defense Security Command, the Special Forces, etc., is still much the greater. “
“Compared with his father, Kim Jong Eun’s authority is not absolute. Because of this, Jang Sung Taek, Kim Kyung Hee and Choi Ryong Hae keep each other in check. Kim Jong Eun supports Choi. We can’t rule out the possibility that Choi will ride off Kim Jong Eun to challenge Jang Sung Taek,” he went on.
Commenting on the story, Sejong Institute senior researcher Cheong Seong Chang told Daily NK, “Jang Sung Taek is quick-witted and politically ambitious, so ever since the Kim Il Sung era he has been a target for restraint. From the beginning of his rule Kim Jong Eun has seemed to rely heavily on Jang. However, this reliance on Jang is diminishing.”
However, Cheon also warned, “Historically, Choi Ryong Hae has enjoyed a special status in the North Korean leadership. We can say that Jang Sung Taek holds significantly more power than Choi, but it is hard to say that he is exercising his military influence to compete with him.”