Confidants of Jong-un disappearing
Several top North Korean officials have disappeared from the state media for weeks, fueling speculation that Kim Jong-un carried out an extensive purge during his recent seclusion.
Ma Won-chun, a prominent architect and construction official, was conspicuously missing from Kim’s entourage when the North’s leader toured major construction projects recently.
The 58-year-old director of the National Defense Commission’s Design Department became Kim’s confidant when he was heir apparent to his father Kim Jong-il.
After Kim took power, Ma was appointed as the deputy director of the Workers’ Party in May 2012, a post equivalent to a vice minister. Kim also gave the architect the military rank of a two-star general.
Whenever Kim visited construction projects, Ma always accompanied him.
Ma, however, has not been featured in the state media for 66 consecutive days as of yesterday.
Ma’s disappearance was particularly conspicuous in North Korean media reports on Oct. 14, which showed Kim’s return after an unexplained 40-day period of seclusion.
At the time, Kim visited a newly completed apartment complex for scientists. Ma did not accompany Kim, media reports and photographs showed.
He was once again missing from the entourage when Kim recently visited Yonpung resort, which has also been built for North Korea’s scientists. The North’s media reported about the trip yesterday.
Ma is one of the main architects of the resort.
“The last public activity of Ma was a visit to the construction site of the resort in mid-August,” an intelligence official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “There is a high possibility that something happened to him because he did not accompany Kim’s first inspection to the project after its completion.”
The source said it is unlikely that Ma is ill because he is relatively young.
The military leadership has also seen key members disappear from media reports.
Gen. Ri Pyong-chol, the commanding officer of North Korea’s air force, has not been mentioned in any public event since late August.
Kim witnessed take-off and landing exercises of the North’s air force on Oct. 19, when he was photographed employing a cane, and he was received by top air force officials. Ri was not among them.
Ri was a rising star in the military after the young leader took power. Kim was particularly fond of the air force, and North TV reports captured Ri whispering into Kim’s ear on multiple occasions. That fueled the notion in the South that Ri was one of the most influential men in the military.
Ri was elected a member of the National Defense Commission at the Supreme People’s Assembly session on Sept. 25, but his disappearance after that was a surprise to the South Korean intelligence community.
Intelligence officials are also paying attention to Ri Yong-gil, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean People’s Army. Although his public mentions dwindled over the summer, he attended the Supreme People’s Assembly on Sept. 25, proving that he maintains the powerful post.
But he did not attend a meeting of Kim and North Korean gold medalists from the recently concluded Incheon Asian Games, an analysis into the North’s media reports on the event released on Sunday showed.
Because many of the athletes are soldiers, military leaders attended the event, and Ri was conspicuously missing.
A well-informed source said an extensive purge took place in the North’s cabinet including the minister of post and telecommunication. “I received reliable intelligence that six minister-level officials were executed,” he said.
Sim Chol-ho, the telecommunication minister, was the son of Sim Chang-wan, a former senior official of the Ministry of Public Security, also known as the Social Safety Agency, who backed Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader, when he was the heir.
Naguib Sawiris, executive chairman of Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding SAE, visited the North last week, but he was received by a vice minister, not Minister Sim.
Rumors also spread that Chang Ung, a powerful sports official, had been purged as he hasn’t been mentioned in the press for weeks. Chang is a member of the International Olympic Committee.
The 76-year-old official has been overseeing the country’s sports community and represented the North on the international sports scene since the reign of the North’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Chang was not mentioned in the North media’s Sunday reports on Kim’s meeting with the athletes.
“He was known as an associate of Jang Song-thaek, and an investigation into him revealed that he had embezzled IOC funds and hid the money in overseas accounts,” a defector who used to work in the North’s sports community told the JoongAng Ilbo.
Jang was the powerful uncle of Kim whom the young ruler executed on charges of treason in 2013.
Seoul believes there is a pattern to the purges carried out by the young leader. “When he carries out a massive purge, he tends to stay out of public view for a significant period,” said a Unification Ministry official.
BY LEE YOUNG-JONG, SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]