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Why Choe Ryong-hae is not North Korea’s No. 2

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“Choe Ryong-hae comes into limelight as No.2, after execution of Jang Song-thaek.” PHOTO SOURCE: Korea Broadcasting System

It has been claimed that Choe Ryong-hae is the “second most powerful man” in North Korea. In support of this view, recent coverage of Kim Jong-un’s on-site visit by North Korea’s state media announcing Choe ahead of Hwang Pyong-so in the list of officials accompanying Kim was cited. Yet it is quite natural and customary for North Korean state media to announce the Chair of the National Sports Guidance Committee, Choe Ryong-hae, ahead of others when the visit in question is to a soccer stadium.

Others pointed to Hwang Pyong-so’s so-called “demotion” — his not being one of the “escort” but rather, acting as “steward” during Kim Jong-un’s military inspections — as evidence that Choe Ryong-hae had rose to become North Korea’s second most powerful man. Yet it is again quite natural for Hwang Pyong-so, who remains at the public helm of North Korea’s military in his position as director of the General Political Bureau, to receive the Supreme Commander as steward on his visits to military training grounds. Even under Kim Jong-il, such demonstrations were considered “rites of loyalty”, and were commonplace.

In order to attenuate the heightened attention paid to the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) in the aftermath of Jang Song-thaek’s execution, to manage the burden and risks of the OGD’s increasing exposure and to maintain the legitimacy of a Supreme Leader centered enforcement system, such things as order or rank of individual public appearances can be easily taken into account and adjusted according to circumstances of perception.

In fact, the North Korean political system’s workings and fundamental power principles make it all but impossible for Choe Ryong-hae to suddenly be North Korea’s “second most powerful man”.

The reality of power in …read more

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