North Korea's No.2 a routine reappointment or part of another purge?

Story highlights

  • North Korean state media names Hwang Pyong-so as influential military figure
  • Hwang apparently replaces Choe Ryong-hae, who may have fallen out of favor
  • North Korean watchers don't think Choe will suffer same fate as Kim's uncle

As so often happens, news of North Korea's latest leadership move trickled out from the regime's official KCNA news agency and hinted at a power shift in Pyongyang.

In a report published on the country's May Day celebrations, the government mouthpiece named Hwang Pyong-so, a senior official of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea and one of Kim Jong Un's closest confidantes, as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army. The position is seen as the military's top political office.

Beyond a cursory mention of Hwang's new title, the news agency did not elaborate on changes behind the political curtain.

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The role is the top military position after Kim, who is supreme commander of the armed forces. Hwang was promoted to Vice Marshal just ahead of the KCNA report that named him as the new military political chief.

Previously, Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae held the position. While in the job, Choe was widely regarded by North Korea watchers as second only to Kim in terms of political clout. However, speculation about his position has been rife following reports that he may have been arrested, some months ago.

This conjecture appeared to have been unfounded as he maintained his position and had been a visible member of the regime until very recently, although his absence may have been due to poor health. The KCNA's May Day report, however, seems to have definitively denuded him of his power.

    In the same piece that effectively coronated Hwang, Choe was referred to as a party secretary in charge of labor groups -- a relatively minor position.

    Political consolidation

    It's not the first time that Kim, who took power in 2011, has made personnel changes at the top. Moves -- some more high profile than others -- seem to be efforts by Kim to consolidate his position by elevating his own confidantes over those who served his father, the late Kim Jong Il.

    In December 2013, he removed his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek, from his position as top adviser and one of the most influential persons in the political hierarchy of North Korea in a very public purge. Kim had the man who was considered to be a close adviser of the scion of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the North since the Korean War, executed and all but wiped from the record.

    Despite the eggshells that seem to surround the country's most influential political positions, it is not thought that Choe has suffered the same fate as Jang.

    Purge unlikely

    A man believed to be Choe Ryong-Hae (L) talks to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) whilst attending a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012.

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    A Unification Ministry source told the New York Times that it is unlikely that Choe has been purged.

    Seasoned North Korea watchers echo the line. An editorial on the independent specialist site NK News said that "it appears ... Choe is not being purged so much as being gradually phased out of power," while 38 North said that the news showed "so far no indication that it represents another broad purge such as occurred with Jang Song Thaek last December."

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    The move comes as the international community suspects the secretive state to be gearing up for another nuclear test, as well as rattling its neighbors with further live fire drills.

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