South Korean media, citing an anonymous source, reports that the Ministry of State Security’s [MSS] Gen. U Tong Chuk (U To’ng-ch’uk) may have been removed from office. Gen. U was neither reported nor observed to have attended any of the public events or celebrations of the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth last week. Based on reported personnel lists from the 5th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly [SPA], Gen. U was removed as a member of the National Defense Commission [NDC]. It is not clear if Gen. U was among the Korean Workers’ Party [KWP] Political Bureau members and alternates who were “recalled” during the 4th Party Conference on 11 April. U Tong Chuk’s last reported public activities occurred during late March when he attended or participated in several events ending the 100-day mourning period for Kim Jong Il.
U Tong-chuk, first deputy head of the State Security Ministry, has been absent from state media coverage since late last month when he accompanied Kim to a mausoleum in Pyongyang to pay respects to Kim’s late father, long-time leader Kim Jong-il who died in December.
U was one of the seven top officials who walked with Kim Jong-un beside the hearse carrying the body of Kim Jong-il during the funeral procession in Pyongyang on Dec. 28.
The senior intelligence official and the seven others were believed to be confidants and advisers as Kim Jong-un took the reins of the country after his father’s demise.
The young leader seems to have purged U as he assumes his father’s key posts in the ruling Workers’ Party, military and the government in a series of political events aimed at consolidating his power.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported last week that Kim Won-hong was appointed as State Security Minister in April, taking up U’s position.
It is not clear whether U has been dismissed from his post or executed.
A South Korean official, who closely monitors North Korean affairs, said the reported purge has yet to be confirmed. He asked not to be identified, citing policy.
The North has a track record of purging or executing senior officials.
Last year, North Korea apparently removed Ryu Kyong, another senior intelligence official, according to South Korean officials and local media.
Historically, the only way out as the leading official of State Security has been death–execution, suicide or even natural causes (such as the last known minister Ri Chun Su from a heart attack in 1987). There have been no reports, or even rumors, that Gen. U has been executed.
U Tong Chuk is closely tied to Kim Jong Un’s succession. Given his background, he was most likely placed as a transitional figure within the central leadership. He opened foreign intelligence and diplomatic channels, oversaw systemic reorganization of DPRK security agencies and assets and performed the aggressive acts necessary to consolidate the positions of KJU and other senior officials such as VMar Kim Jong Gak and VMar Choe Ryong Hae.
According to several sources, Gen. U was promoted to Minister of State Security during the autumn of 2011. However, in publishing biographical profiles on members of the Political Bureau on 12 April 2012, DPRK state media identified Gen. Kim Won Hong as having been appointed minister in April 2012. DPRK media never identified Gen. U as minister, suggesting that even if he was promoted it was on interim basis. Both Gen. Kim and Gen. U appeared on the same Korean People’s Army [KPA] promotions list in April 2009 when U was promoted to 3-star Colonel General (sangjang) and Kim promoted to 4-star General (tangjang). Also, during 2009, Chosun Ilbo reported that Kim Won Hong was replaced as head of the Military Security Command [MSC] by Col. Gen. Jo Kyong Chol (Cho Kyo’ng-ch’o'l).
During 2009 and 2010, U Tong Chuk became State Security’s public face and acted as its chief functionary, while Kim Won Hong appeared to continue to discharge the functions of MSC chief. U’s status was gradually enhanced as he was promoted to General in April 2010 and elected as an alternate to the Political Bureau and CMC in September 2010. In 2010 and 2011 Gen. U supervised investigative activities which resulted in a number of officials and cadres being dismissed from office, incarcerated or executed. In 2011 Gen. U led a major personnel housecleaning at State Security, which resulted in the removal of dozens of domestic managers and operatives. U also supervised the relocation of several intelligence branch offices outside the DPRK. As Kim Jong Il’s health eroded during 2011, Gen. U was well-positioned to tie up any loose ends before and after KJI passed away. Gen. U was identified as one of the “death angels” involved in the dismissals and executions of officials in the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and KPA General Staff.
As reports of these purges began to appear in March 2012, Gen. U withdrew to the shadows. The question Pyongyang watchers might ask is whether Gen. U inadvertently had the wrong cadre clipped or if it was always intended for him to make his public position untenable.