2009 saw some major shifts in KPA and security apparatus personnel appointments. The 73-year old VMAR Kim Yong-chun replaced the 76-year old VMAR Kim Il-chol as Minister of the PAF. Gen. O Kuk-ryol became a Vice Chair of the NDC, and his Operations Department was moved from the Korean Workers’ Party to the reconfigured NDC. Gen. Ri Yong-ho was promoted from commanding officer of the Pyongyang Defense Command to Chief of the General Staff, replacing Gen. Kim Kyok-sik who became commanding officer of the IV Corps in South Hwanghae.
In April 2009, the number of commissioners on the NDC was expanded. Added to the DPRK’s supreme power body were: Minister of Public Security, Gen. Ju Sang-song; State Security Department Senior Deputy Director, Col. Gen. U Tong-chuk; KWP Munitions Industry Department Deputy Director and President of the Second Academy of Natural Sciences Ju Kyu-chang; KWP Administration Director and my favorite research subject Jang Song-thaek, and; MPAF GPB Senior Deputy Director, Gen. Kim Jong-gak.
Kim Jong-gak has become a KPA executive to watch. General Kim was born in 1943 and attended Kim Il-sung University. He joined the ranks of the North Korean elites when he was elected a Candidate Member of the KWP Central Committee in December 1991. He was promoted to KPA Colonel-General in honor of Kim Il-sung’s 80th birthday in April 1992. In December of that year he was appointed a Vice Minister of the MPAF and elected as a member of the CCKWP. Gen. Kim became the central administrator of the KPA’s military parades and public events in Pyongyang. In 1998 he was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly, a body to which he has been elected in 2003 and 2009. He was promoted to General in April 2002. In 2004, he began meeting with foreign delegations visiting the DPRK, and represented the KPA during reception for Pyongyang military attaches as well as meetings and receptions with DPRK allies such as the Russian Federation, Uganda, Cuba and China. In 2006 he was a participant in a visit to Pyongyang by then-Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan.
In October 2006 he gave the keynote speech at a Pyongyang rally in support of the DPRK’s nuclear testing on 9 October. In early 2007, Gen. Kim took on his current post as Senior Deputy Director of the MPAF General Political Bureau. Gen. Kim’s first reported appearance as part of Kim Jong-il’s entourage was in March 2007 when General-Secretary Kim visited the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang. He also watched Arirang with General-Secretary Kim in October that year. Later that month Kim Jong-gak was a key KPA participant during Viet Nam’s Communist Party Secretary-General Nong Duc Manh’s visit to the DPRK.
A significant indicator of Kim Jong-gak’s rising star in the DPRK’s power center came in April 2008 when he joined Kim Jong-il at Kumsusan Memorial Palace to pay tribute to Kim Il-sung. Gen. Kim also joined General-Secretary Kim at Kumsusan in July of that year, on the anniversary of the late President Kim’s death. Gen. Kim delivered the report at the 25 April House of Culture on the anniversary of “Kim Jong-il’s Songun leadership.” At this event Kim Jong-gak conveyed a central propaganda component of Kim Jong-il’s songun politics; that General-Secretary Kim’s involvement in the KPA dates to a 1960 study tour of the Seoul Ryu Kyong Su Tank Division 105. In September 2008, Gen. Kim broadened his leadership c.v. when he conducted a visiting delegation of the Vietnamese People’s Army durng their visit to the DPRK. By the end of 2008, Kim Jong-gak was reported as a member of General-Secretary Kim’s entourage by the North Korean eleven (11) times in 2008.
2009 has accelerated Gen. Kim’s rise to the top of the KPA. He was a leading speaker in February nominating Kim Jong-il as a Deputy (delegate) to the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly. He was part of General-Secretary Kim’s entourage when Kim Jong-il voted in SPA elections. He was listed #11 on the platform seating order at a national memorial service commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s demise. Kim Jong-gak has been reported as a member of Kim Jong-il’s entourage on thirty (30) occasions in 2009. Gen. Kim was a delegation member or meeting participant during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s October visit to Pyongyang. In mid-November Gen. Kim led a KPA delegation to high-profile meetings in Beijing with the PLA and PRC Vice President Xi Jinping, the latter meeting was broadcast on Chinese television news. There were also reports that Gen. Kim was scouting locations in advance of a possible trip to China by Kim Jong-il. As further evidence of Kim Jong-gak’s prominence gave the keynote address at a national memorial service in honor of DPRK national hero O Jung-hup.
The directorate of the MPAF General Political Bureau is one of the most powerful posts in the KPA. The GPB was established in the 1960′s to ensure KWP control over the KPA, a preventative measure against faction forming in the military. Despite the General Staff being given greater autonomy in February, the GPB still retains its preeminent status in the KPA. It is possible that the GPB inhabits the interstices between the MPAF General Staff and the Military Security Command. Under exigent circumstances, Kim Jong-il can bypass the MPAF and NDC and take command and control over the General Staff, whereas the Military Security Command reports directly to him. In the middle is the GPB, which is institutionally subordinate to the MPAF and NDC, but whose individual commanders report directly to Kim Jong-il.
Until 2008, one could read Kim Jong-gak as a surrogate for the ailing VMAR Jo Myong-rok. With his numerous public activities in the last year, and his appointment to the National Defense Commission, indicates that Gen. Kim is VMAR Jo’s successor as Director of the GPB. Gen. Kim has established connections to People’s Armies in Viet Nam and China, as well as among the military attaches posted to Pyongyang and in allied countries where he has traveled in KPA delegations. The giant question mark that has circumscribed Gen. Kim’s status is his benefactor or political patronage network. He has appeared and worked with several KPA heavyweights including VMAR’s Jo, Kim Il-chol and Kim Yong-chun. It is likely that he has ties to MPAF Vice Minister for External Relations (and KJI confidante) Gen. Pak Jae-gyong. Because Kim Jong-gak has served in secondary positions for nearly twenty (20 years) and due to his involvement in the public theater of military parades, loyalty meetings and rallies, his patron could well be the Supreme Commander (who was attending KISU at roughly the same time as Kim Jong-gak).
Still, Gen. Kim may be connected to Jang Song-thaek, may have had ties to the late VMAR Jang Song-u or the late Gen. Jang Song-gil. Both the Gen. Jangs had political commissar responsibilities at various periods in their careers. This would certainly facilitate an interaction with Kim Jong-gak. It should also be noted that Kim Jong-gak’s name did not appear in the North Korean press in either 2003 or 2005, and he only appeared on three occasions in 2004, the same period as Jang Song-thaek’s “lost years.” Gen. Kim’s was appointed as the GPB’s Senior Deputy Director at the same time Jang Song-thaek was reconstituting and taking the helm of the KWP Administration Department and his protege Pak Myong-chol making deals with the Egyptians over the mobile ‘phone service.
Gen. Kim Jong-gak’s star is rising at the same time as Kim Jong-il plans for a transfer of power. One might read Gen. Kim as as supporter of the Kim Jong-un succession. Gen. Kim will certainly play a central role in the collective management system that will either rule the DPRK out right or support the hereditary successor. Under either scenario we are now seeing in Kim Jong-gak and Chief of the General Staff Ri Yong-ho, the next generation of KPA leaders.