Once inside Kim Jong Un's inner circle,
top aide's star fades
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[November 21, 2017]
By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - When Kim Jong Un sat down
in September to order the sixth and largest of North Korea's nuclear
tests, Hwang Pyong So sat by his side, his khaki military uniform
conspicuous among the suits at the table, photos released by state media
at the time showed.
Now Hwang, once one of Kim's most-trusted advisers, is facing
unspecified punishment on the orders of another man who also sat at that
exclusive table in September, Choe Ryong Hae, South Korean intelligence
Information on North Korea is often difficult to obtain, and with few
hard details and no official confirmation from Pyongyang, analysts said
it was too soon to draw any firm conclusions from the unspecified
But the moves, which appear to involve two of Kim's top four advisers,
are being closely watched for indications of fractures within his
secretive inner circle, and come as North Korea faces increasing
international pressure over its nuclear weapons program.
Having his advisers compete with each other suits Kim just fine, said
Christopher Green, an analyst with the Crisis Group.
"It is hardwired into autocracy to have underlings in competition," he
Hwang, a shy, bespectacled general in his mid-60s, is a close confidant
of Kim Jong Un and has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of
North Korea’s leadership in the space of a few years.
In 2014, he became one of the most powerful people outside the ruling
Kim family when he was named chief of the General Political Bureau of
the army, a powerful position that mobilizes the military for the
His apparent punishment takes on additional meaning as it was
orchestrated by Choe who has competed with Hwang in the past and stands
to gain from any demotion, according to South Korea's spy agency.
TEA WITH THE ENEMY
The two men were last seen in public together early last month as they
watched a gymnastics gala, according to state media.
Hwang has since faded from public view, whereas Choe was the ranking
official who met with a senior envoy from China in Pyongyang last week.
Kim has not shied away from removing or punishing even favored leaders
who could become powerful enough to threaten his grip on power, said
Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership at 38 North, a
project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
Studies in Washington.
"Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So could not have continued in the capacity
that he was operating in, without it coming back to bite him," he said.
Both Hwang and Choe came to South Korea during the Asian Games in 2014 -
the highest such visit by North Korean officials to the rival South.
Dressed in a drab, olive army uniform and his large officer's cap,
Hwang, who had been promoted to the No.2 spot behind Kim just one week
earlier, had tea and lunch with Choe and South Korean officials and
waved to crowds at the games' closing ceremony.
[to top of second column]
North Korea's Hwang Pyong So (L), a senior aide North Korea's
supreme leader Kim Jong Un, attends the closing ceremony of the 17th
Asian Games at the Incheon Asiad Main Stadium, October 4, 2014.
REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo
The trip had been announced just one day in advance and took many
South Korean observers by surprise. Some suggested there may have
been a power struggle between the two men, neither wanting to yield
the high-profile visit to the other.
Choe, who was subjected to political "reeducation" himself in the
past, now appears to be gaining more influence since he was promoted
in October to the party's powerful Central Military Commission,
according to South Korean officials.
The National Intelligence Service indicated Choe now heads the
Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), the secretive body which
oversees appointments within North Korea's leadership.
The punishment represents the first time Hwang has faced any major
blow to his standing, said Lee Sang-keun, a North Korea leadership
expert at Ewha Woman's University's Institute of Unification
Hwang had a reputation of playing a respectful and careful role
around the notoriously unpredictable Kim. Photos released by state
media often showed him covering his mouth as he politely laughed
with the supreme leader.
The punishment may not reflect any specific mistakes on Hwang's part
but could be part of a wider effort by Kim to ensure that the ruling
party retains its control over the military, Lee said.
The moves are part of a sweeping ideological scrutiny of the
political unit of the military for the first time in 20 years,
according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker on South Korea's
parliamentary intelligence committee.
They could also be an effort to prevent a repeat of a major purge in
2013, 38 North's Madden said.
Kim's uncle and second most powerful man in the secretive state,
Jang Song Thaek, was executed during that purge after a special
military tribunal found him guilty of treason.
Preemptively putting Hwang in his place now meant Kim might prevent
him from becoming so powerful he could only be dealt with in a
similar way, Madden said.
"What (Kim's) doing can be described as clipping wings."
(Additional reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Lincoln Feast)
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