Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership
DPRK state media reported on 8 November (Friday) that Kim Jong Un (Kim Cho’ng-u’n) visited the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces [MPAF] Revolutionary Museum. He was accompanied by VMar Choe Ryong Hae (Director of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] General Political Department), Lt. Gen. Kim Su Gil, Lt. Gen. Ryom Chol Song, Ri Jae Il (Senior Deputy Director of the Korean Workers’ Party [KWP] Propaganda and Agitation Department) and Hwang Pyong So (Deputy Director of the KWP Organization Guidance Department). Kim Jong Un’s last observed appearance was a visit to the Masik Pass Ski Resort.
Kim Jong Un visited the MPAF Revolutionary Museum to commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the death of VMar Jo Myong Rok (Cho Myo’ng-nok) [1928-2010], immediate past 1st Vice Chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission (1998-2010) and Director of the KPA General Political Department (1995-2010). He visited the exhibition “Supreme Commander and Comrades-in-Arms”, with special attention to the showcases of photographs and artifacts from VMar Jo’s life and his relationship to the supreme leaders. According to KCNA, Kim Jong Un said that “Jo was a close comrade-in-arms of Kim Jong Il (Kim Cho’ng-il)” and that he “missed Jo so much and visited the hall on the occasion of his death anniversary.” He also noted that “the feats Jo performed for the party, revolution, country and people will shine long along with the advance of the revolutionary cause of Chuch’e.”
After touring the exhibition hall, Kim Jong Un said “the hall displays photos of President Kim Il Sung’s (Kim Il-so’ng) and Kim Jong Il’s lifetime comrades-in-arms who protected the party with arms by staking their destiny on the party and leader” and that “it was thanks to the harmonious whole and revolutionary comradeship between the supreme commander and his comrades-in-arms that the Korean revolution made triumphant advance despite all sorts of trials and difficulties. Commanding officers of the KPA, remaining infinitely loyal to the party and revolution, shared the same idea, intention and destiny with the supreme commander.” He also remarked that “they were staunch revolutionaries and true soldiers who dedicated themselves to laying solid foundations for comradeship, pride of the Korean revolution and source of invincible might, and to developing the KPA into invincible revolutionary armed forces.” According to KCNA, Kim Jong Un “underscored the need to rebuild the hall to showcase the faith, obligation and feats of the revolutionary soldiers, who dedicated themselves to the party, leader, country and people, to help service personnel and people get a good knowledge of their noble ideological and mental world.”
KCNA’s account of Kim Jong Un’s visit contains no references to So’ngun or any iterations of “Military-First leadership” or “Military First politics.” This is an interesting omission because Kim Jong Un visited a military-themed museum literally down the street (one block, in fact) from the headquarters of the KPA Supreme Command and paid tribute to a member of the KPA’s high command when So’ngun politics became a part of political education and indoctrination (particularly within the KPA).
State media coverage of Kim Jong Un’s visit to the MPAF Revolutionary Museum emphasized the themes of loyalty (“remaining infinitely loyalty to the party and revolution”; “the faith, obligation and feats of the revolutionary soldiers”), duty (“staunch revolutionaries and true soldiers who dedicated themselves”) and solidarity with the supreme leadership (“the harmonious whole and revolutionary comradeship between the supreme commander and his comrades-in-arm”; “shared the same idea, intention and destiny with the supreme commander”). One interpretation might take these themes in conjunction with the announcement that KPA Navy personnel were killed during a training exercise, Kim Jong Un making several appearances at and around the KPA company commanders and political instructors meeting, the arrest of an alleged SK operative and the numerous changes to the KPA command during 2012-13 and spin an analytical thread that there are problems of loyalty and morale among KPA officers and service members.
And yet, it could merely be a matter of Kim Jong Un retail politicking and demonstrating filial piety (marking the third anniversary of VMar Jo’s death) to a high-profile DPRK elite from the Kim Jong Il era. The KPA has committed a significant number personnel and construction materials to various construction projects. There is a cohort of senior KPA officials who’ve expressed their reticence about using KPA personnel on nonessential construction projects and Kim Jong Un’s visit might have been intended to mitigate that resistance. Kim Jong Un’s visit also occurred the same week as US, Chinese and South Korean officials engaged in a round of shuttle diplomacy focused on the conditions around the resumptions of the Six Party Talks, which included a visit to Pyongyang by Wu Dawei, China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs. Having visited the White House and Pentagon and hosted the former US Secretary of State, VMar Jo Myong Rok is popularly associated with previous DPRK efforts to improve its relationship with the US.
Raising the memory of VMar Jo Myong Rok and his function in the DPRK leadership, indirectly refers to Pyongyang watchers’ ongoing debate concerning the influence and position of his successor as KPA General Political Department head, VMar Choe Ryong Hae. Several commentaries and analyses have questioned VMar Choe’s credentials and experience, as well as whether he commands the respect of his KPA subordinates. This is based on the fact that until 2012, Choe’s entire career was spent in the Korean Workers’ Party apparatus, not the KPA, while his predecessor VMar Jo was an aide to Kim Il Sung, served in combat during the Fatherland Liberation (Korean) War, and spent his career as a military commander (not the political officers’ corps). According to this analysis, a military man was replaced with a political appointee which may have created problems for KJU’s fledgling leadership. This analysis appears to ignore the word “Political” in “General Political Department.” VMar Jo Myong Rok was the second KPA General Political Department director ever to be appointed from among the ranks of field commanders. VMar Jo’s 1995 appointment was extraordinary, intended according to an old academic paper “as part of the effort to strengthen the status of military commanders, aimed at forming a DPRK Army with offensive character.” Before and after the double shot of purges of the Kapsan Faction and “the military adventurists” during the late 1960s, General Political Department directors were either seasoned KWP political managers (like Choe Ryong Hae) or members of the KPA political officers’ corps. Despite being in fragile health, VMar Jo participated in the process of finding his replacement; Choe Ryong Hae was elected KWP Secretary of Military Affairs in September 2010 during the 3rd Party Conference, just over a month before VMar Jo passed away.