Hwang Pyong So must be feeling pretty good about himself right now. At the latest Supreme People’s Assembly meeting, he was made vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. This was after his promotion to director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, making him the top political officer in the military. In a country where there is supposed to be no No. 2 official, he is called the second-most powerful figure.
Now he has crossed the border into South Korea on a one-day, short-notice trip, triggering hopes of reconciliation between the arch-rival republics—and heightening speculation about the fate of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young supremo, who has not been seen in public since September 3.
Also extremely unusual: The reports on the meeting from the state-run Korean Central News Agency mention Kim—first secretary of the Workers’ Party, first chairman of the National Defense Commission, and supreme commander of the People’s Army, all the top positions in the state and party—only at the end and only in passing. In a regime like North Korea’s, these state media reports spell political infirmity.
And is Kim Jong Un really ill? He was last seen in public walking with a limp—he probably has gout —and state media has reported he is not well, but that is not what one member of Hwang’s 11-member delegation told South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae on Saturday. The next day, Ryoo said he was assured that there were “no problems” with Kim’s health. But if Kim were well, there would have been no reason for him to have stayed out of sight for a month, especially during the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting.
Nonetheless, there are too many rumors and reports to allow one to conclude that all is well in Pyongyang. The story that the city is in lockdown —no permits to travel in or out issued since September 27—suggests that an extraordinary event has occurred. The mid-December execution of Jang Song Thaek, once thought to be Kim’s regent, and the subsequent eradication of his nationwide patronage network are symptoms of distress.
The continual purges during Kim’s short tenure cannot be a good sign. In the space of 15 months he switched out his army chief three times, and it appears he replaced about half of the top 218 military and administrative officials. Pyongyang, according to the Financial Times, has not seen such turmoil since the late 1950s, when his grandfather Kim Il Sung eliminated opposition after his failure in the Korean War. As famed Korea watcher Bruce Bechtol has pointed out, the constant purges of senior civilians and flag officers over the last few years is proof of Kim’s inability to cement his position at the top of the political system.
“Senior officials in North Korea’s Workers’ Party and military are increasingly objecting to policies or ignoring orders from leader Kim Jong Un, leading to rumors that his grip on the country is weakening,” noted the Chosun Ilbo, the most widely read newspaper in South Korea, in late July. Defying instructions would have been unthinkable during the tenure of his father or grandfather.
Of course, in the world’s most opaque regime, almost any scenario is plausible. We should know a lot more, however, when we see who is on the reviewing stand during the October 10 celebration of the founding of the Workers’ Party.
Full article: Has North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Been Toppled? (The Daily Beast)