North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Gen. O Kuk Ryol Steps Forth From the Shadows

Kim Jong Un (L) shakes hands with Gen. O Kuk Ryol on 21 December 2011 (Photo: KCNA)

In the aftermath of Kim Jong Il’s death, Gen. O Kuk Ryol (O Kuk-yo’l) has emerged as a key member of the DPRK leadership.  The 80-year old Korean People’s Army [KPA] General was elected Vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission in February 2009.  Since his promotion to the NDC, Gen. O has been responsible for daily general management of military intelligence and directing policy, planning and implementation of crisis management.  Hours after Kim Jong Il expired Gen. O, along with Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Taek and several others, participated in a principals’ meeting.  This meeting began the order of operations which publicized KJI’s demise and taking on KJI’s remaining administrative and command mechanisms.

Pyongyang watchers (including, on occasion, this one) had written Gen. O out of the leadership circles.  Some pointed to the fact that at the 3rd Party Conference Gen. O retained his membership on the Party Central Committee, but was elected to neither the Political Bureau nor Central Military Commission nor was he listed as a party department director.  There were also rumors that as NDC Vice-chairman he experienced difficulty managing the behavior and actions of his subordinates.  In early 2011 another rumor surfaced that officials with personal or patronage links to Gen. O had been purged.  Instead, given his daily responsibilities, Gen. O blended into the woodwork of what DPRK media identifies as “senior officials of party, state, army, security organs and national institutions,” and regularly attended various Pyongyang-based events such as national report meetings and concerts.

Gen. O was likely tapped by KJI to serve as a transitional leading official of the KPA, another eminence grise-cum-guardian for Kim Jong Un.  He has managed DPRK special forces, is former chief of the KPA General Staff and has links to the Guard Command.  Gen. O is technologically savvy and highly respected within the DPRK military.  O Kuk Ryol has been tied to the Kim Family for nearly seven decades.  He was looked after by KJI and Kim Kyong Hui’s mother, Kim Jong Suk (Kim Cho’ng-suk).  O and his family have been loyal supporters to KJI and the Kim Family over the years.

Over the short term Gen. O will likely assist in the daily management of the KPA, supporting (perhaps in the form of counter-signing) orders or instructions issued by Kim Jong Un or Ri Yong Ho, chief of the KPA General Staff.  It is highly likely that during KJI’s visits to China in 2010 and 2011, and his visit to Russia this past August, this power arrangement was tested and tweaked.  The 19 December 2011 order to the KPA to suspend its winter training cycle and return to barracks most likely had Gen. O’s bureaucratic footprints.

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December 2011
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