Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership
revised and updated June 24, 2016
Ri Pyong Chol (Ri Pyo’ng-ch’o’l; Yi Pyong-chol) is a senior deputy department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea [WPK] Central Committee and member of the DPRK National Defense Commission [NDC]. He is also an alternate member (candidate member) of the WPK Political Bureau, a member of the WPK Central Committee and a deputy (delegate) to the Supreme People’s Assembly. Ri served for four decades as a uniformed officer and commander in the Korean People’s Army [KPA] until 2014 at which time he became a senior party official. He is one of Kim Jong Un’s closest aides and advisors.
Ri Pyong Chol has held a series of command positions in the KPA General Staff and the KPA Air and Anti-Air Force. He joined the general-grade officers of the KPA as Major-General (sojang) in April 1992. In 1995, he was appointed as head of the Pyongyang Air Command, which is responsible for monitoring and controlling the DPRK’s air space. He replaced O Kum Chol who was appointed commander of the KPA Air Force. He received the Order of Kim Il Sung, one of the DPRK’s highest state honors, in October 1995. He was promoted to Lieutenant-General (chungjang) in April 1996.
Ri was first elected as a deputy (delegate) to the Supreme People’s Assembly in July 1998 and Ri continued his tenure at the Pyongyang Air Command. On October 15, 2007, Ri appeared on a DPRK state television talk show and spoke about his interaction with late DPRK leader Kim Jong Il. Ri Pyong Chol was appointed commander of the KPA Air Force in April 2008, replacing O Kum Chol who became a Vice Chief of the KPA General Staff.
Between October 2007 and April 2008 had been promoted to three-star Colonel-General (sangjang) commensurate to his position as air force commander. The effective promotion date was not publiclized, but instead observed when Ri Pyong Chol led a KPA delegation on a visit to China during April 22 to April 26. Ri met with then-PRC Defense Minister Liang Guanglie ROK observers speculated that Ri’s visit to the PRC was precipitated by the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] deployment of Jian-10 [J-10] fighter plane, and the DPRK proferring an acquisition request. PRC state media reported that during Ri’s visit and meeting Liang “the two sides attached importance to enhancing relations and cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries.”
Ri Pyong Chol attended Kim Jong Il’s first confirmed public appearance, a soccer match held on the premises of the Kim Family compound in Kangdong County, Pyongyang, on November 1, 2008, following KJI’s recovery from a pair of strokes during the summer of 2008. Ri was observed among a group of senior officials with whom KJI was shown interacting prior to attending the soccer match. Ri’s presence at the event was not explicitly reported by DPRK state media. On November 15, 2008, Ri departed the DPRK and led a KPA delegation on a goodwill visit to Cuba. Ri went on to accompany Kim Jong Il on two field inspections of KPA Air Force units during November and December 2008.
He was promoted to General (taejang) during a promotions order issued on Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, 2010, along with a series of senior members of the DPRK national security community linked to the hereditary succession and eventual transition of Kim Jong Un. During the 3rd Party Conference on September 28, 2010, Ri Pyong Chol was elected a member of the WPK Central Committee and member of the WPK Central Military Commission.
In October 2010, Ri participated in a KPA meeting with a senior level PLA delegation led by former PRC Central Military Commission Guo Boxiong. Ri Pyong Chol was a member of the entourage that traveled to Russia with Kim Jong Il during August 2011 and appeared standing next to KJI and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. although his presence was not reported in DPRK state media accounts of KJI’s visit. Ri’s presence led some ROK-based Pyongyang watchers to speculate that the DPRK was seeking to acquire Russian airplanes as part of the late leader’s visit. From late November to December 2011, Ri Pyong Chol attended five events with KJI during the last month of the late leader’s life.
Kim Jong Un’s assumption of power saw a renewed focus on the KPA Air Force and the DPRK’s military aviaition and air defense assets. Ri Pyong Chol attended numerous field inspections and drills alongside Jong Un during 2012 to 2014. In August 2012, Ri led a KPA delegation on a visit to Russia. In July 2013, Ri spoke at a meeting of KPA personnel commemorating the end of the Korean (Fatherland Liberation) War.
During September to November 2014, Ri Pyong Chol attended short courses at the Kim Il Sung Higher Party School (a.k.a. Kim Il Sung School for Higher Party Officials) and the Kim Il Sung University of Politics whilst supervising the transition of the command of the KPA Air Forces. On September 25, 2014, during the 2nd session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly Ri Pyong Chol was elected to the National Defense Commission, the DPRK Government’s highest power organization. He returned to public life during mid-November 2014 identified as a WPK Central Committee department senior deputy director.
Ri is presumed to serve as one of the senior deputy directors of the WPK Organization Guidance Department [OGD], the regime’s nerve center which communicates policies and appoints senior personnel, with a portfolio in internal security, the munitions industry and military logistics. His OGD appointment occurred the same year that Hwang Pyong So left OGD to become a uniformed general-grade officer and take over as director of the KPA General Political Department. Based on public appearances and anecdotal accounts, Ri took over Hwang’s old OGD jurisdiction and as such formulates and communicates policies and is responsible for human resources and housekeeping tasks.
During 2015 and 2016 Ri Pyong Chol served on a small working group of senior WPK and KPA officials involved in policy planning, administration and logisitics around the research, development, production, testing and deployment of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Ri was a key manager in the DPRK’s January 2016 test of a nuclear device and had a key role in the tests of the Hwaso’ng-10 (Musudan) intermediate-range ballistic missile [IRBM] during the spring and summer of 2016.
During the 7th Congress of the WPK (7th Party Congress) Ri Pyong Chol was elected to the 7th WPK Central Committee and an alternate (candidate) member of the WPK Political Bureau.
According to DPRK state media, Ri Pyong Chol is a graduate of the Mangyo’ngdae Revolutionary School.
Ri Pyong Chol
Senior Deputy Department Director, WPK Central Committee
Alternate (candidate) Member, WPK Political Bureau
Member, WPK Central Committee
KPA General (taejang)
Deputy, Supreme People’s Assembly
1992: (April) Promoted, Major-General
1995: Head, Pyongyang Air Command
(October) Awarded, Order of Kim Il Sung
1996: (April) Promoted, Lieutenant-General
1997: (February) Member, Choe Kwang Funeral Committee
1998: (July) Elected, deputy, 10th Supreme People’s Assembly
2003: (August) Elected, deputy, 11th Supreme People’s Assembly
2008: (April) Appointed, Commander, KPA Air Force
2009: (March) Elected, deputy, 12th Supreme People’s Assembly
2010: (April) Promoted, General
(September) Elected, 6th WPK Central Committee
Elected, WPK Central Military Commission
(November) Member, Jo Myong Rok Funeral Committee
2011: (December) Member, Kim Jong Il Funeral Committee
2012: (February) Awarded, Order of Kim Jong Il
2014: (March) Elected, deputy, 13th Supreme People’s Assembly
(September) Elected, Member, DPRK National Defense Commission
(November) Appointed, WPK Central Committee Senior Deputy Director
2015: (November) Member, Ri Ul Sol Funeral Committee
(December) Member, Kim Yang Gon Funeral Committee
2016: (May) Elected, Member, 7th Party Central Committee
Elected, Alternate Member, WPK Political Bureau
(May) Member, Kang Sok Ju Funeral Committee
According to ROK records, there is another Ri Pyong Chol who has held senior positions in the DPRK national security community. According to ROK records, this Ri Pyong Chol was born in 1941 in North Hamgyo’ng Province, attended Kang Gon Military Academy, Kim Il Sung University and completed his professional military education at the Frunze Military University in Russia. He held a series of successive positions in the KPA General Staff Operations Bureau and KPA General Staff Nuclear-Chemical Bureau, eventually the bureau’s director. The last known effective promotion of this Ri Pyong Chol was to the rank of Lieutenant General. It is not clear, in 2016, based on open sources and some interview data ,whether this Ri Pyong Chol is the same man. There are very good analytical cases for both.
Interview data acquired by Michael Madden 2009-2016; “Ri Pyong Chol,” The North Korea Handbook (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2003) p. 882; “Report of the Central Election Committee on the Results of the elections of deputies for the 11th Supreme People’s Assembly,” Korean Central Broadcasting Station (in Korean), August 5, 2003; “Chinese Defense Minister Meets KPA Delegation,” Korean Central News Agency, April 23, 2008; “Does North Korea’s Air Force Commander Discuss the Importation of Fighters During his Visit to China,” by Choe Kye-ch’ang, Yonhap News Agency (in Korean) April 23, 2008; Joint Meeting: 60 Years of Glory That Made Bloodline of Mangyo’ngdae Shine with Death-Defying Defense of the Leader, Korean Central Television (in Korean), October 15, 2007; “Kim Jong Il Watches Soldiers’ Soccer Match,” Korean Central Broadcasting Station (in Korean), November 1, 2008 “Kim Jong Il Watches Soldiers’ Soccer Match,” Korean Central Television (in Korean), November 2, 2008; “Kim Jong Il Watches Football Match,” Korean Central News Agency, November 3, 2008; “KPA Air Force Delegation Leaves for Cuba,” Korean Central News Agency, November 17, 2008; “Kim Jong Il Inspects KPA Air Force Unit #1016,” Korean Central News Agency, November 30, 2008; “Kim Jong Il Inspects KPA Air Force Unit #1017,” Korean Central Broadcasting Station (in Korean), December 27, 2008; “Report of the Central Election Committee on the Election Results of deputies to the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly,” Korean Central Broadcasting Station (in Korean), March 9, 2009; “KPA Supreme Commander’s Order #0045 on Raising the Military Ranks of Commanding Officers,” Minju Joson (in Korean), April 15, 2010; “Members, Alternate Members, WPK CC,” Korean Central News Agency, September 28, 2010; “Central Military Commission Organized,” Korean Central News Agency, September 28, 2010; “N. Korea’s Air Force Chief with Kim Jong Il on Russia Trip,” Chosun Ilbo, August 28, 2011; “SPA Presidium Decree Confers Order of Kim Jong Il on 70th Birth Anniversary,” Korean Central Broadcasting Station, February 13, 2012; “Air Force Commander Leaves for Russia,” Korean Central News Agency, August 7, 2012; “KPA Service Personnel Meet,” Korean Central News Agency, July 24, 2013; “Report of the Central Election Committee on the Election Results of deputies to the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly,” Korean Central News Agency (in Korean), March 11, 2014; “The NDC’s Fall Line-up: Results of the 13th SPA,” 38 North, October 6, 2014; “State Funeral Committee for Ri Ul Sol,” Rodong Sinmun (in Korean), November 9, 2015; “State Funeral Committee for Kim Yang Gon,” Rodong Sinmun (in Korean), December 30, 2015; “Fourth and Final Day of the 7th Party Congress,” NK Leadership Watch, May 10, 2016; “WPK Central Committee and WPK Central Auditing Commission Meet,” NK Leadership Watch, May 10, 2016; “State Funeral Committee for Kang Sok Ju,” Rodong Sinmun (in Korean), May 21, 2016