Reporting on the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting last week, the KCNA ran a short announcement that signaled another major purge of high-level personnel. The announcement noted that Choe Ryong Hae was being “recalled” from his position as vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission “due to his transfer to another post.” The same language was used with respect to Jang Jong Nam, also a member of the NDC. In their places, Hwang Pyong So was elevated to vice-chairman of the NDC and Hyon Yong Chol and Ri Pyong Chol became regular members. Given the absence of Kim Jong Un from public view—and recent reports that Pyongyang itself may be on lockdown-there is naturally a lot of speculation that larger political changes could be afoot.
What, if anything, does Choe’s ouster mean? First, to be clear, this is not simply a reassignment to another job; it is clearly a loss of power and influence if not worse. The KPA General Political Bureau is responsible for maintaining political loyalty in the military, and is historically a pivotal position in the power structure of the regime as a whole. From 1995 to 2010, when he died, this post was held continuously by Jo Myong Rok, a career military man and one of Kim Jong Il’s main military confidantes.
Following Jo's death there was a nearly one and a half year period where the post was vacant and the Bureau was run by second-in-command Kim Jong Gak. The post was ultimately filled by Choe Ryong Hae. Choe was the son of Choe Hyon, a guerrilla who fought with Kim Il Sung and a former Minister of the People's Armed Forces. Choe himself, however, served in the military only briefly in the 1970s and did not have a significant military background; Michael Madden’s North Korea Leadership Watch provides a full bio. Nonetheless, before the September 2010 Party Conference, Choe was elevated to the general ranks as a prelude to his appointment as head of the KPA General Political Bureau in April 2012. In a piece I recently published in Asian Survey with Luke Herman and Jaesung Ryu (overview here) we argued that this was part of a wider pattern of inserting civilians into high-ranking military positions, including Jang Song Thaek.
What is interesting is that Hwang Pyong-so also does not appear to have a military background either; again, North Korea Leadership Watch offers a brief bio. Rather his career seems to have been centered on the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). Of particular note is the fact that his role within the OGD centers on the military. We can do no better than cite New Focus International on the rotating chairs at the top of the OGD:
“Before Kim Jong-un’s succession, the now deceased Ri Je-gang was OGD first deputy director with overall charge, with Kim Kyong-ok as OGD first deputy director for military affairs. After Ri Je-gang died, Kim Kyong-ok became OGD first deputy director with overall charge, with Ri Yong-chul as OGD first deputy director for military affairs and Hwang Pyong-so as OGD deputy director for military affairs. After Ri Yong-chul died, Hwang became OGD first deputy director for military affairs, and he remains in this position still today.”
New Focus International has been publishing wider analyses of the regime that focus on the OGD’s central role in the system. Their interpretation is that the emergence of Hwang is simply bringing into the daylight power relations that have long been in place but in a more behind-the-scenes way; indeed, they have gone so far as to suggest that Kim Jong Un is little more than a puppet of tight-knit group centered in the OGD.
There are several analytic issues of note here that are germane to understanding the system. First, to use some social science jargon, who is the principal and who is the agent? The New Focus International pieces seem to suggest that the OGD effectively sits at the top of the regime’s organizational chart. However, this interpretation seems problematic; every Communist party has the equivalent of an organization and guidance department that is responsible for controlling the recruitment and promotion of personnel—including the military—and communicating key decision down the chain of command from the leadership, whether personal or collective, as in China’s Politburo Standing Committee. Does anyone think that Mao, Deng, Stalin or Xi Jinping for that matter were or are beholden to their OGD-equivalents? It seems more plausible that the personnel in these roles are trusted advisors who have access to the leadership and work with it, but to implement the general direction and policies decided through some process that remains opaque to us. These processes include Kim Jong Un’s whims, collective decision-making through the NDC, or—our favored alternative--informal networks of consultation that occur outside formal institutions altogether.
Madden’s description of Hwang’s role is worth quoting at length because it suggests this alternative perspective:
“From 2011 to 2014 Hwang Pyong So was one of Kim Jong Un’s close aides, serving as a gatekeeper and proxy between the supreme leader and several key organizations in the DPRK’s national security community. In his OGD position, Hwang received daily written and telephonic reports and policy documents, submitting these reports and documents to Kim Jong Un, then communicating the supreme leader’s instructions back to these security organizations. Hwang had broad powers over personnel decisions (appointments, promotions, demotions and dismissals) as well as investigations and account audits (conducted by the Ministry of State Security and various central party policy control offices).
Hwang worked closely with the Guard Command, the KWP Machine-Building Industry Department, the Second Economy Commission, the KPA Strategic Rocket Forces, the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and other agencies and units responsible for WMDs, military industries and physical and political security.”
The second analytic issue is whether any of this is materially germane to what the regime is and does. Again, the answers are not clear. Kremlinologists tracked the ups and downs of the Soviet leadership in excruciating detail, but the point of the exercise was often unclear as the regime seemed to behave in ways that were—with some important exceptions such as the rise of Khruschev—independent of these personnel movements. Larger institutional and coalitional forces were at work. In the case of North Korea, the main point is not whether the OGD or Kim Jong Un is in charge, but that the regime rests on a complex of organizational and political forces that include: Kim Jong Un and his personal office and guard command; the top party hierarchy (including but not limited to the OGD); the military; the security apparatus; the court economy (Office 39 and related entities) and the military industrial complex.
It is this broader configuration of forces that in conjunction tells us what the regime is about. Personnel and organizational movements that would really matter would be evidence that technocrats were being promoted into the NDC or that the cabinet was actually being used to make real decisions. Those would be personnel changes of note; it is not clear that this one is. And indeed, even if we were completely wrong and Kim Jong Un himself were purged, it is not clear that the new regime would be fundamentally different in orientation; indeed, it could be worse.
No one has a good model of how the North Korean political system works. But we have to be wary of thinking that the movement of personnel is the key to understanding the system. Rather, we need to think about underlying coalitions that sustain the system. As far as we can see, virtually none of the key players are interested in moving North Korea in a fundamentally different direction from where it is currently stuck.