Ri Yong-gil may be North's defense minister
The appointment follows the dismissal of Ri Pyong-chol, vice chairman of the North’s Central Military Commission and a standing member of the Politburo Presidium, after criticism by Kim Jong-un on June 29.
“Judging from Ri’s placement and military attire during the [party leadership’s] visit to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the 27th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's death on July 8, it is highly likely that he was appointed to the [defense minister] post.”
Kim visit to the palace – a mausoleum for his grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong-il – with an entourage of high-ranking officials from the North’s party and military leadership was closely scrutinized for any changes in the positions of officials who usually stand close to Kim.
Ri Pyong-chol, who usually wears a military uniform on such occasions and is normally placed next to Kim in the front row, was spotted in the third row wearing a black Mao suit.
The European Union (EU) in March put Ri Yong-gil, then the North’s social security minister, on a list of North Korean intelligence and public security officials slapped with sanctions for violating human rights by committing torture and sexual assault, among other crimes.
However, the South Korean official added, “While various circumstances suggest Ri has been appointed defense minister, we will watch for official confirmation, such as the North Korean media referring to him as defense minister.”
The apparent appointment of Ri is yet another change among high-ranking North Korean party and military officials following a meeting of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Politburo on June 29, where Kim reprimanded party members for “negligence of their official duties” and demoted Ri Pyong-chol from his presidium post and General Park Jong-chon from his position as marshal and the North’s military chief of staff.
Kim is believed to have blamed Ri for delays to the installation of sanitization and quarantine facilities at Uiju Airport near the Sino-North Korean border.
The airport is reportedly central to the regime’s plans to facilitate the entry of Chinese aid and restart trade while keeping Covid-19 at bay.
Although South Korean news agency Yonhap reported in February 2016 that Ri Yong-gil had been executed on charges of corruption and forming a political faction, North Korean state media announced during a May 2016 Workers’ Party Congress that Ri had been appointed a member of the Central Committee of the North's ruling Workers’ Party, as well as its Central Military Commission.
BY MICHAEL LEE, JEONG YONG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]