Jong-un has replaced old guard
The generational change was publicly praised by the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party. In an opinion piece on May 5, 2014, entitled “A period of rejuvenation,” the newspaper stressed the importance of youths because they are more focused on working than talking.
Before his death, Kim Jong-il selected three patrons to help his son in the power transition: Park To-chun, a 71-year-old Workers’ Party secretary in charge of military procurement; Kim Pyong-hae, a 74-year-old secretary in charge of overseeing senior officials; and Kim Yang-gon, a 73-year-old secretary in charge of South Korea affairs.
Kim Jong-il personally recruited the three and paid special attention to them. The trio of technocrats, who had no special political backing, was considered the best protectors of the monolithic leadership of Kim Jong-un, along with Jang Song-thaek, who was Kim’s powerful uncle and political guardian.
And while Kim Jong-un replaced many political guardians from the older generation and executed his uncle, he has kept faith in that trio. “He told them they just have to take orders from him and didn’t have to listen to anybody else,” a South Korean intelligence official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “They have earned his deep trust.”
In a New Year address, the young ruler did not hesitate to declare that the third generation power succession was completed in the North. Analysts in the South believe the trio’s influence will grow stronger. They said Kim Yang-gon’s role will become more important than ever this year, especially since Kim talked about a possible inter-Korean summit in the New Year speech.
The 75-year-old Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong will also handle important tasks for the young ruler, including a proposed visit by Kim to Russia in May.
Another important task for Ri will be restoring frosty relations between Pyongyang and Beijing and pushing forward talks with Japan. Efforts to arrange a North Korea-U.S. dialogue are also a mission.
Ri’s ties to the young ruler go back decades. He was the North Korea ambassador to Switzerland when Kim studied in the European country and Kim named Ri foreign minister last April. One month later, Ri managed to arrange a meeting between the North and Japan in Sweden.
He also gave a speech at the UN General Assembly in September last year, the first time a foreign minister has done so in 15 years.
“In addition to his special ties to Kim, Ri is bold and shows leadership, so he easily took control over the Foreign Ministry,” another source informed about the North said.
Other rising powers in Pyongyang’s elite circles are Han Kwang-sang, director of the Workers’ Party’s Finance and Accounting Department; Ma Won-chun, director of construction at the National Defense Commission; Kim Pyong-ho, deputy director of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department; Hong Yong-chil, deputy director of the Machine-Building Industry Department; and Pak Thae-song, party secretary in charge of South Pyongan Province.
They are technocrats in their 50s and 60s and Kim recruited them when he was heir-apparent. Ma, an architect and city planner from the prestigious Paektusan Architectural Institute, gained Kim’s trust by successfully completing major projects such as the Masikryong Ski Resort.
Hwang Pyong-so, a 66-year-old general in charge of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, will likely remain influential in the military, analysts said. Hwang was the most frequent companion for Kim during his public activities last year, and Kim promoted him rapidly over the past years.
Last April, Hwang was promoted to vice marshal and named director of the General Political Bureau in May. In September, he was appointed the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Kim Chun-sam, first vice-chief and director of the Operational Bureau of the KPA General Staff, and Ri Pyong-chol, first deputy director of the Workers’ Party, also accompanied Kim on military site inspections frequently over the past years.
“Kim Chun-sam had served as the commander of the Pyongyang Defense Command and he will likely be promoted to chief of the general staff,” said Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow of the Sejong Institute. “Ri Pyong-chol was former commander of the air force and he appears to be serving the powerful Guidance Department, in charge of ideology and appointments.”
Kim also appointed younger technocrats for economic tasks. Among the seven vice premiers of the cabinet, three are in their 50s and another three are in their 60s.
“The Kim Jong-un regime has promoted the goal of economic recovery, and more generational change will come in the cabinet in the hiring of technocrats,” a South Korean government official said.
Primer Pak Pong-ju, 76, and Vice Premier Ro To-chol, 65, are called the duumvirate of the North’s economic affairs. Pak was known to have close ties with Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s executed uncle, as they together carried out various economic projects under the Kim Jong-il reign.
When the North sent an economic survey team to the South in 2002, Jang and Pak were both members. When Pak pushed forward the July 1, 2002 economic reforms, Jang was a strong backer.
Jang was executed in late 2013 and a massive purge of his allies followed. Pak, however, managed to survive by betraying him. At a Workers’ Party conference that decided Jang’s purge, Pak reportedly testified that Jang had monopolized projects to earn foreign currency.
Vice Premier Ro has long served the State Planning Commission, which creates all economic plans for the North. Since 2009, he has headed the commission.
Ro is also the architect of the economic reforms of June 28, 2012. He was also considered a Jang ally and rumors spread that he had sought political asylum in China, which South Korean officials denied.
“Premier Pak is a reformist,” said a South Korean official. “The development plan of a tourism belt from Wonsan to Mount Kumgang, unveiled by Kim Jong-un during his New Year’s address, will actually be championed by Pak.”
Ri Yong-nam, 55-year-old minister of external economic affairs, is another influential technocrat. Last year, he managed to attract a $25 billion investment from Russia for a railway project.
The North’s economic policies, particularly the businesses that earn foreign currency, used to be headed by the military, but the cabinet took many of them over after April 2012. “The military became too addicted to the taste of money,” Kim said at the time. “Guns and bullets will be provided by the party and the country and the soldiers only need to fight well.”
Ri Yong-ho, then chief of the general staff, reportedly protested Kim’s direction and Kim dismissed him from the post.
BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM, SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]