Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership
Since the beginning of December, DPRK state media has gradually released a series of news items and photo essays in commemoration of the one year anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s demise. On 17 December 2011 Kim Jong Il passed away, according to the official chronicles, of a heart attack on a railway carriage during his field guidance and inspection tours. A series of images published by Rodong Sinmun show several officials who were publicly retired or died under questionable circumstances during the transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un.
Typically, the DPRK’s image makers hit the “crop” function to delete the politically departed, the unpersons, from the official photographs (or otherwise pixellate their faces from the official documentary films). There are a number of senior officials who were dismissed or disappeared who have not appeared in the ongoing RS series–including Pak Nam Gi (only shown in profile) and VMar Ri Yong Ho (Ri Yong Who?). However, four officials believed to have been bounced by the Center appear in some of the photos . This suggests that some officials may have been shuffled out simply due to old age or that their perceived political sins have been absolved.
Jon Pyong Ho Jon was the Korean Workers’ Party’s [KWP] chieftain of all military, arms and munitions production. Jon was the institutional godfather of the DPRK’s strategic weapons programs and managed the 2006 and 2009 experimental nuclear detonations and several missile and rocket tests in the 1990s and 2000s. Prior to the 3rd Party Conference on 28 September 2010 Jon migrated his executive role in the DPRK’s arms industry to serving as the DPRK Cabinet’s chief political manager. After the 3rd Party Conference he retained his membership on the KWP Political Bureau, but was replaced as the party’s secretary for military industry. In April 2011 he was publicly retired as a member of the DPRK National Defense Commission. In December 2011 Jon was listed as #6 on the national funeral committee for Kim Jong Il and prominently attended several funeral-related events. One of his last reported public appearances was at a mourning ceremony for KJI in March 2012. At the 4th Party Conference Jon was removed from the KWP Political Bureau. Some Pyongyang watchers have interpreted Jon’s removal from office as an active purge by Kim Jong Un. However, his prominence in this image from a 2005 visit to the Rakwo’n Machine Complex in Sinu’iju implies that Jon’s role remains honored by the new leadership.
VMar Kim Il Chol From 1997 to 2007 VMar Kim was the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, a figurehead of the Korean People’s Army. A longtime commander of the KPA Navy Command, Kim played a key operational role in the 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo. In May 2010, in a rare communique, the National Defense Commission publicly retired him of “his posts” “due to advanced age.” At the time of his dismissal the NDC had two other members–Jon Pyong Ho and VMar Ri Yong Mu–who were several years older than Kim. According to a recent (and likely erroneous) report in South Korean media, he was executed last year. VMar Kim appears in several of the KJI memorial images, including this image from a KJI visit with disabled veterans in April 2003. While VMar Kim may have been a misfit toy, the current leadership is not ignoring his many years of service.
Ri Tae Nam Ri was from a rare genus of DPRK elites, being both a technocrat and experienced political manager. In 2010 he was appointed a DPRK Cabinet Vice Premier at the 3rd session (plenum) of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly [SPA] and during the 3rd Party Conference he was elected an alternate (candidate member) of the KWP Political Bureau. In April 2011 Ri was removed as Vice Premier, at the 4th session of the 12th SPA “for his health reason,” Ri also lost his alternate status on the Political Bureau. However he was listed at #28 on Kim Jong Il’s funeral committee, after all other Political Bureau members and alternates. Ri appears in some of the KJI memorial images from the early 2000s when Ri was the party’s chief secretary in South Hamgyo’ng Province.
Ri Je Gang Ri was one of Kim Jong Il’s closest aides. He was a key administrative gatekeeper responsible for channeling documents, policies, faxes to and from KJI. He also hired the technical and clerical staff who worked directly for KJI and signed off on a number of personnel appointments from internal security managers to the young women who sang, danced and conversed with KJI and other core elites at social occaisions. A lot of reporting and analysis has focused on Ri’s close ties to Ko Yong Hui which was the apotheosis of Kim Jong Un’s hereditary succession, but he was also close to KJI’s eldest son Kim Jong Nam. In June 2010 DPRK state media reported that Ri Je Gang was killed in a car accident. Despite the fact that his funeral was quick and private, and the central party garage neither took posession of the damaged car nor receivied a formal accident report, Ri was buried with the stars commensurate to a key official. Ri’s death has been linked to an alleged rivalry with Jang Song Taek (a rivalry which was never conclusively established). Considering Ri Je Gang’s prominence in two images released to memorialize KJI, Ri’s death may been tied to a political fight with DPRK elites other than Mr. Jang.
The website NK News has swapped the European royal court playing card decks (dating back several centuries) for members of the DPRK leadership. That next canasta cruise on the Taedong or your quiet cribbage game at the Hyangsan Hotel won’t be complete without dealing Kim Ki Nam or Choe Yong Rim from the bottom of the deck. The DPRK leadership playing cards can be obtained from NK News.