North Korea has replaced its ambassador in China after just six months in the position, a highly unusual move.
The outgoing man is Choi Pyong Gwan, who assumed the position in April. He has been replaced by Ji Jae Ryong, a First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. First Vice Minister Ji will allegedly participate in a 60th anniversary commemorative ceremony for the Chinese participation in the Korean War which is scheduled for October 25th, and will then assume the position formally in Beijing.
Since the first rumors about Choi being removed began to spread while Kim Jong Eun was being introduced as the successor at the Chosun Workers’ Party Delegates’ Conference on September 28th, analysts were led to wonder whether the move was related to the succession.
Certainly, the replacement of a North Korean ambassador to China after such a short tenure is unusual; North Korea usually lets its ambassadors to China to build relations over a long period, with both Choi’s most recent predecessors staying in Beijing for approximately 10 years; Ju Chang Jun served in the position for the 12 years after 1988, and his replacement, Choi Jin Su, for around ten years from 2000.
First Vice Minister Ji distinguished himself in the Socialist Working Youth League and Korean Students Commission in the 1970s and has held the position of First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs since 1993.
He grew close to National Defense Commission Vice Chairman Jang Sung Taek in the 1970s while acting as Chairman of the Central Committee of the Socialist Working Youth League. When Jang Sung Taek was pushed out in 2004, Ji was also demoted and sent to a provincial level position, but reappeared when Jang made his comeback in 2007.
The appointment of one of Jang Sung Taek’s close associates to such a keynote position, where North Korea requires absolute support for the stabilization of Kim Jong Eun’s hereditary succession, seems to reconfirm Jang Sung Taek’s influence in North Korea at this time.
As a part of which, this also looks like an active attempt by Pyongyang to strengthen the relationship between the Chinese and the new North Korean leadership as the Kim Jong Eun era approaches. Speculation is that placing a close associate of Jang Sung Taek’s in the position will provide a hot line between the leadership in Beijing and Pyongyang.
On this, Choi Chun Heum, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told The Daily NK, “Compared to the past, the period of replacement is fast; however, it seems to be related to the fact that a massive reshuffle took place this year. This should be interpreted as a follow-up measure after the reshuffle of Central Committee of the Party.”
Choi went on, “It can be seem as laying a foundation stone for the lineup of personnel desired by Kim Jong Eun and Jang Sung Taek.”
Also regarding the fact that First Vice Minister Ji is a close associate of Jang Sung Taek, Choi explained, “From China’s perspective, they might have wanted someone who can influence the development of ‘Changjitu’ (Changchun-Jilin-Tumen), the development project surrounding the Tumen River.”
The move may also presage the expected visit to China of anointed successor Kim Jong Eun.