Yet Another Purge in North Korea?

The absence of Choe Ryong-hae—one of Kim Jong-un’s closest confidantes and one of the most powerful of the North Korean elite—from the state funeral committee of Marshall Ri Ul Sol on November 11 raises questions of yet another possible high-level purge in the North Korean leadership. Choe was one of the regents, along with the controversial and deceased uncle Jang Song-thaek appointed by late Kim Jong-il to assist Kim Jong-un with the succession process, and after Jang's execution was widely seen as the number two figure in the country. A North Korean state funeral (Ri’s is the fifth since 2010) is generally a useful barometer for Pyongyang’s power hierarchy. The conspicuous omission of Choe from the funeral list, with around 170 names, is significant.

Q1: What do we know of Choe’s recent appearances?

A1: A little, but none of it pointing in a definitive direction. According to some South Korean newspapers on November 12, citing unnamed intelligence sources, Choe was sent to the Kim Il Sung Higher Party School for revolutionary reeducation. However, others have reported that he may be performing hard labor on a collective farm as a punishment for some yet unnamed transgressions against Kim Jong-un. But unless Choe makes a public appearance, or North Korean official news sources acknowledge his fate, we cannot really know for sure what has happened.

The last video footage of Choe accompanying Kim Jong-un was played earlier last week (November 4 and 9), but those images were outdated, pulled from events in October, not November. The last print mention of Choe was on October 31, when he personally penned an editorial titled “A historical conference that will ‘bring glory to’ the new generation of Juche revolution” on Rodong Sinmun, to celebrate that the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) would be held in early May 2016. His last public appearance came on October 23, when he gave an opening address at a sports contest, but this was not with Kim Jong-un. His last official appearance with Kim Jong-un was on October 19 at a musical concert.

Q2: Why is Choe’s absence important?

A2: If purged, Choe would follow a line of around 70 high-level officials who have met a similar fate under Kim Jong-un. Since many of these are Kim’s own handpicked circle, it would suggest that the power transition is experiencing some hiccups even as the state prepares for the 7th Party Congress in eight months.

Choe’s pedigree and family ties once again demonstrates that a purge or reeducation by Kim Jong-un shows little mercy. Choe not only holds top-level positions in the party (secretary of the WPK, a member of the WPK Political Bureau Presidium, and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission), his father was a famous North Korean revolutionary, Choe Hyon, a man who fought alongside Kim Il Sung and served on the National Defense Commission in the 1970s. Choe’s second son, Choe Song, is reportedly married to Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Q3: How do we explain this?

A3: Three possible explanations come to mind.

The first has to do with indiscretion. Choe may have undertaken some activities either internally or with foreigners that may have suggested disloyalty to the leader. Even minor criticism, however inadvertent, could be a cause for purging or reeducation. The question of loyalty has been an important variable under Kim’s rule. The demise of Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol in May is a telling example for elites who cross that line.

The second has to do with incompetence. Choe may have failed at some major projects that he was put in charge of, and if recent news reports are true, it could have been difficulties with the new Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station, which opened last month.

A third reason could be illness. Top political North Korean elites have been known to have disappeared from the public scene to recover from illness. Kim Jong-un himself was missing from public view for more than 40 days last year, reportedly to recover from an ankle surgery. But this thesis would not explain his absence from the state funeral listing.

Q4: What if he is being reeducated, but not purged?

A4: Six of one, half dozen of the other. Choe may be back sometime soon after he has relearned his revolutionary principles. But if the past is any indication (his uncle Jang for example), the difference between reeducation and an eventual purge is only a matter of years.

Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Andy Sau Ngai Lim is a research assistant with the CSIS Korea Chair.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Andy Lim

Research Assistant, Korea Chair