The Importance of Choi Ryong Hae

Alongside Kim Jong Eun’s dysfunctional aunt and uncle, Kim Kyung Hee and Jang Sung Taek, Choi Ryong Hae is one of the most important elites in the North Korean regime. Yet there is limited understanding of Choi’s special status and role. Choi is even sometimes described as “one of Jang Sung Taek’s people” or “Jang’s closest ally.” This is incorrect, and reveals ignorance of historical reality.

In a system where blood lines and familial heritage are taken very seriously, Choi’s high status stems from his membership of the anti-Japanese partisan revolutionary line, which is only superseded in importance by the “Mt. Baekdu line” of the Kim family itself. Therefore, if we are to understand Choi’s status in the North Korean regime, it is vital that we know what kind of person his father, Choi Hyun, was.

▲ Partisan heritage of Choi Hyun

Choi Hyun was born into a partisan military family in 1907, and grew up in Hunchun, China. He lost his mother to Japanese imperialism at an early age, and thus took up arms in the fight for independence while still in his childhood. Choi was thus uneducated, something that would keep him from rising to a leading position in the early days.

In November 1925, when Choi was 18, someone in Hunchun informed against him and he was imprisoned, spending 7 years in detention in the regional city of Yanji. Thereafter, on September 18th, 1931 (while Choi was still in prison) the Manchurian Incident took place, providing Japan with a pretext to invade the region and ultimately prompting the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to call for the overthrow of the nationalist government and revolution against all forms of imperialism. The CCP People’s Committee in Manchuria called a meeting in mid-November the same year, whereupon it ordered the creation of an anti-Japanese guerilla unit.

When he finally got out of prison, Choi took up the name Choi Hyun. It was July of 1932. The changing of names was common among participants in the anti-Japanese movement, since most didn’t want their families involved in their travails. Choi, whose original name was Choi Deuk Kwon, joined the war, and the Chinese Communist Party as well, right there in Yanji.

North Korea claims that Choi then joined a guerilla unit led by Kim Il Sung in August of 1932, and that he continued to fight under Kim Il Sung’s direct leadership thereafter. But this is not true. Choi didn’t even meet Kim until September of 1933, and even then they were in different units. All we can say on this score is that Kim and Choi’s forces would often go on joint operations, meaning that some indirect influence was possible.

▲ Choi Hyun’s strengths and limitations

In May 1937, a group led by Choi crossed the Tumen River, the border between Korea and Manchuria, to attack a rural North Hamkyung Province village. This was reported as Choi Hyun’s doing, and his name leapt to prominence. The following month, a unit led by Kim Il Sung attacked Bocheonbo in South Hamkyung Province. The latter battle was widely reported in every domestic newspaper in Korea, allowing Kim’s name to become even more widely known. Donga Ilbo reported at the time that “300 members of the Kim Il Sung and Choi Hyun groups” had been involved in the Battle of Bocheonbo, leading to Choi’s further rise.

Choi Hyun was lower down the pecking order than Kim Il Sung, but the Japanese Empire regarded him as a very threatening character all the same. A reward was put up for the capture of both Kim and Choi in which Choi was described as a “lion” and Kim as a “tiger.” Choi Hyun may have been ignorant and lacking in leadership skills, but his bravery frightened the Japanese.

After the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, Kim Il Sung came ashore at Wonsan on a Soviet ship, riding with Kim Il, Choi, Ahn Gil and Kim Chaek. In November that year, Choi’s wife Kim Chul Ho, Kim Il Sung’s wife Kim Jong Suk, and their son Kim Jong Il all returned to the country, too.

▲ Wounds of a former fighter

North Korea says this of Choi Hyun’s activities during the Korean War: “He made a great contribution, and as commander of the 2nd Army and 2nd Infantry Divisions of the North Korean People’s Army he honored the commands of the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) and commanded a great many battles from the front line of the southward advance in order to drive the American imperialist invaders down to the banks of the Nakdong River, liberating an extensive area of the southern half of the peninsula.”

Post-war, with his military exploits firmly in hand, in 1956 Choi was elected to the Party Central Committee, thus entering the power elite, which was limited to about 70 people at that time. In 1966 he was elected to the Politburo, thus becoming one of the top ten political figures in the country. Thereafter, from 1968 until 1976 Choi took the reins of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, before dying in 1982 at the age of 75.

▲ Kim Jong Il’s trust in Choi Ryong Hae

Born in 1950, Choi Ryong Hae was on such friendly terms with the Kim family that he called Kim Kyung Hee “sister” and Kim Jong Il “brother”. Kim Il Sung appreciated Choi Hyun’s loyalty and bravery, and Choi responded by accepting Kim Jong Il as the successor to Kim Il Sung. This may well be why Kim Jong Il always backed Choi Ryong Hae’s advance.

In South Korea and the West, Choi Ryong Hae has been described as one of Jang Sung Taek’s men. However, Choi was elected to the Party Central Committee in December 1986, six years earlier than Jang. This meant that Choi entered the highest elite in North Korea at an extraordinarily young age, only 36. Jang, who is four years older than Choi, joined the same entity in December 1992, meaning that he was 46. The claim that Jang cultivated Choi politically is thus highly unpersuasive.

From 1986 to 1998, for fully twelve years, Choi also ran the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, which has more than 5 million members and is charged with cultivating the youth of North Korea, a vital task in which such longevity is unheard of. However, he was removed in January 1998 for his complicity in the “Socialist Youth League corruption scandal,” and got sent to work for the Pyongyang Municipal Water and Sewage Management Office. Yet even at this low point his removal was publicized as being due to illness, a decision that must have been taken at the highest level, and appears to have been designed to soften the blow and allow for his return.

Wisely, Choi strove to recover Kim Jong Il’s trust, and in August 2003 was promoted to the General Affairs Department of the Party Central Committee. In April 2006 he was made Chief Secretary of North Hwanghae Province, and finally, at the 3rd Party Delegates’ Conference in September 2010, the event at which Kim Jong Eun was officially revealed as the successor to Kim Jong Il, Choi became the only non-member of the Kim family to be elected to the three major organs of the Party: the Central Committee Politburo, the Secretariat of the Politburo, and the Party Central Military Commission.

This was an impressive success. Kim Jong Il’s first official public appearance as successor to Kim Il Sung had been at the 6th Party Congress in 1980. There, the only figures voted onto the same three Party organs that Choi had ascended to in 2010 were Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Choi’s elevation to such heights proves the deep trust that Kim Jong Il had in him.

▲ Kim Jong Eun’s closest advisor

We can say with confidence that Choi Ryong Hae rose beneath the halo of Choi Hyun. He continues to rise; in fact, his status is higher in the Kim Jong Eun era than it was in the Kim Jong Il era. In 2012, Choi Ryong Hae took second place among the power elite in terms of accompanying Kim Jong Eun for his onsite inspections. Jang was first. But in 2013, roles were reversed and Choi overtook Jang into first place. This is because Choi now plays a crucial role in both the military and economic spheres, guiding the loyalty of military cadres while dealing with all kinds of public projects.

Choi Ryong Hae, like his father Choi Hyun and Cho Myung Rok before him, plays an active role in ensuring the military stays loyal to Kim Jong Eun and the Chosun Workers’ Party. At the same time, with his own form of “onsite inspection”, Choi plays a role in directing the military-led construction of memorials, apartment buildings, parks, sports facilities, farming complexes and more. In May, Choi also visited Beijing to meet Xi Jinping and other high-ranking Chinese officials, a trip on which he was characterized in the North Korean media as a personal envoy from Kim Jong Eun.

For the moment Choi enjoys special status, just as Jang Sung Taek has done since the Kim Jong Il era. Choi has been vice chair of the State Sports Guidance Commission, chair of the Chosun Youth Taekwondo Association, and chairman of the Chosun Football Association. If an accident were to occur within the next few years, Choi would be one among the core power elite who could emerge as the next leader. Choi was chairman of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, the de facto recruitment arm of the Party, for more than 12 years, and even if he does not become a leader in the future, he will still be well-placed to wield influence in the decision-making process.

Whatever happens hereafter, Kim Jong Eun is reliant on Choi Ryong Hae, and since his influence is expanding markedly there is a great need to take note of his roles and responsibilities.

* The viewpoints expressed in Guest Columns are not necessarily those of Daily NK.

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