Disappearance of Kim Jong-un’s aide Choe Ryong Hae sparks rumours

17-Nov-2015 Intellasia | The Australian | 6:00 AM Print This Post

No one is truly safe in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. But there has long been a degree of security for people whose families faithfully served three generations of Kim dictators, such as that of Choe Ryong Hae, the top official whose recent disappearance has sparked rumours of a purge.

Choe, considered by many observers to be North Korea’s second or third top official, wasn’t present at this week’s state funeral for a close comrade of North Korea’s founder, Kim’s grandfather, prompting intense speculation about his whereabouts and the potential fallout if he was purged.

Choe has played a key role in recent years as the public face of North Korea’s relationships with neighbours, and he has dropped out of sight at what may be a significant moment of change for the hermetic state.

In August, Pyongyang ended a tense military standoff with Seoul, and in October it allowed a rare reunion of families from both sides of the militarised border. In May, North Korea plans to hold its first party congress in 35 years, an event some North Korea experts think could be timed to a major policy shift.

(The Australian)

Disappearances of top North Korean officials aren’t uncommon, and watchers of the country often track rumours of coups and purges. Kim Jong-un himself vanished from North Korean state media for 40 days last year, prompting rumours of ill health or even a coup. Since taking leadership of North Korea in late 2011, Kim has executed around 70 officials as part of his efforts to solidify his position, according to South Korean authorities.

But not all disappearances in the country last forever. “The history of North Korea purges is very different than the purges under Stalin, where people disappeared for good,” said Ken Gause, an expert on North Korea’s leadership at CNA Corp. in Arlington, Va., referring to the former Soviet leader.

“Unless a senior leader crosses a very clear, bright-red line within the regimen – a challenge to the Kim family directly – there is a chance that they can return even to the same level of status that they had before, though it could take weeks, months or years,” Gause said.

So far, Choe hasn’t been expunged from documentaries broadcast on North Korean state television, Gause says, supporting theory that Choe, though out of sight, might not have been purged, but rather sent to an institution for re-education, as an intelligence official said Thursday.

Choe has often been at the centre of purge rumours, only to reappear later, earning him the sobriquet of “comeback kid” in the South Korean media. The waxing and waning fortunes of the 65-year-old, who has served as an emissary for Kim to China, Russia and South Korea in recent years, suggest that, though he may have run afoul of Kim, his family background offers him some measure of security.

His father, a former North Korean armed forces minister who fought alongside Kim’s grandfather against occupying Japanese forces in the 1930s. North Korea puts a premium on loyalty, with the descendants of Kim family partisans rewarded for their faithfulness to the regimen.

Wednesday’s funeral gave top honours to Ri Ul Sol, a 94-year-old decorated military officer whose life was defined by its faithfulness to Kim’s grandfather – so much so that his military uniform didn’t have space for all of his medals and baubles, according to scholar Fyodor Tertitskiy.

Gause suggested that Choe may have been punished for the perceived slow pace of rapprochement between Beijing and Pyongyang, a prominent part of Choe’s portfolio.

In addition, Choe – long seen as a protege of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was executed in a public purge in December 2013 – has been dogged for years by rumours of corruption, which may have offered a pretext for his latest disappearance.

As recently as several weeks ago, Choe appeared to be in Kim’s good graces. He was sent to Beijing in September to represent North Korea at a high-profile military parade, and represented North Korea’s ruling party at talks with a high-ranking Chinese visiting delegation for a key anniversary celebration in Pyongyang last month.

North Korea watchers will be keeping close tabs on Choe’s fate, especially as the party congress in May grows closer.

“There is no obvious challenger to Kim Jong-un, but the fact that the elite around him have to be on pins and needles can impact decision making, since no one is going to want to offer up plans and strategies for fear that they may be rejected and their name may be attached to it,” Gause said.

In such a febrile atmosphere, Gause said, “The last thing you need is a high-profile purge of an individual.”




Category: Korea

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