Daily NK has learned new details behind North Korea’s recent naming of Pak Jong Chon to key positions of power along with the replacements of chief of the General Staff, Minister of Social Security and vice chief of the ruling party’s Military Industries Department.

Having been demoted for his involvement in a “grave case” regarding emergency quarantine efforts, Pak was recently elected to the Presidium of the Politburo of the ruling party’s Central Committee and as secretary of the Central Committee. According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Tuesday, Pak owes his new positions to his “singular capacity with artillery and firepower weaponry, which has been recognized by Comrade Kim Jong Un.”

Pak was demoted from marshal to vice marshal during an expanded meeting of the politburo in late June. However, unlike former Presidium member Ri Pyong Chol and former Defense Minister Kim Jong Gwan – who were rebuked alongside Pak and lost their jobs – Pak maintained his position as chief of the General Staff.

A string of key military figures were punished at the time as the “grave case” was directly connected with military rice stores. However, because the reshuffle focused on Ri, Pak reportedly got off relatively lightly.

A former commander of North Korea’s artillery units, Pak taught North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the ways of artillery when Kim was still just the successor to his father. Kim completed the two-year artillery command course at Kim Il Sung Military University, where he gained such a profound understanding of artillery that there is reportedly “no piece [of artillery] he cannot handle.” The source said this was in large part due to Pak’s instruction.

This is to say, Pak has been able rise to the very top of the power structure not only because he is close to Kim – who prioritizes the strengthening of North Korea’s artillery forces – but also due to the fact that he is regarded as a capable commander who is playing a productive role in the development of new artillery weapons.

While Pak has been wearing suits at official appearances since his latest promotion, he is still a vice marshal in the military, said the source.

People are also talking about Pak’s replacement as chief of the General Staff, Rim Kwang Il. The source that it is an “uncommon move” to put Rim, who is only in his 50s, into such a position “even granting that he’d worked in the General Staff Department in the past.

“He must have been named chief of the General Staff for his accomplishments or out of consideration for future policy,” he added.

Before taking on his new position, Rim headed the Reconnaissance General Bureau. Prior to that, he was a vice chief of the General Staff and head of the Operations General Bureau. In January, he was elected to the Central Military Commission. That he could rise up the ranks at such a young age, attaining a position equivalent to the head of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, was largely thanks to his accomplishments in cyber warfare using the country’s hacking units, said the source.

ri pyong chol
Kim Jong Un at the leadership podium during the Party Foundation Day military parade in Pyongyang on Oct. 10, 2020. / Image: KCNA

The source said Rim was well-regarded for having led and commanded “North Korean-style modern electronic warfare” that “scares the living daylights out of the enemy.

“He was most certainly named as chief of the General Staff due to the military leadership’s focus on mind warfare,” he added.

Moreover, interest has focused on why North Korea named Jang Jong Nam, an army general, as Minister of Social Security. North Koreans offer various theories to explain the move, speculating that it aimed to “overcome the split in the Ministry of Social Security as a semi-civilian, semi-military organization and strengthen its discipline as the second security bastion of the leadership” and “completely root out the source of the ministry’s familism and self-protective nature.”

Ministry of Social Security officials reportedly believe internal crackdowns will intensify, and have grown quite nervous as a result.

Ministry of Social Security officials say the rise of a former Vice Minister of Defense and Lieutenant General in charge of the military’s weapons bureau to head of the ministry means they should prepare for more intensive “internal supervision.”

“Though somebody with a military background [Ri Yong Gil] has left, another army guy who is an even bigger stickler for rules and absolute obedience has arrived,” the source said, based on what officials were saying.

Meanwhile, in regards to the rise of Yu Jin to the vice chief of the Military Industries Department, the source said Yu comes from an ordinary background, but he has been promoted based on his “own skills and energy” since the time of Kim Jong Il. “He’s a piece of gold cultivated by the General [Kim Jong Il],” he said.

“He’s a top munitions expert who has been a secretary of military factories, secretary of munitions, a member of the Second Economic Commission, and a member of the Military Industries Department,” he added. 

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service had reported that Ri Pyong Chol, who was demoted over the “grave case,” might be named the new head of the Military Industries Department. With Yu elected to the position instead, people are asking what will happen to Ri.

Daily NK reported in July that Ri was the first vice chief of the Military Industries Department, based on a report from a source in the North Korean military.

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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.