As succession speculation abounds amid reports of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s deteriorating health, a recently obtained confidential report has shed new light on a power struggle taking place in the reclusive state.
The report, obtained by Kansai University economics professor Lee Young Hwa, cites Chinese analysts as questioning the loyalty of two veteran generals of the Korean People’s Army who are considered to be rivals of Jang Song Taek — Kim’s brother-in-law, who was recently named to the powerful National Defense Commission and is widely considered to be the North’s second in command.
Gens. Hyon Chol Hae, 75, and Ri Myong Su, 72, have been closely accompanying Kim during his military inspections, and are known to exercise much clout by conveying Kim’s orders to the military command. They are also said to be actively promoting Kim’s second and third sons, Kim Jong Chol and Kim Jong Un, as heirs to Kim, possibly as a means of self-protection, the report says.
“It was generally believed that Jang Song Taek was steering the nation ever since Kim fell ill, and there was speculation that there also existed a rival faction that worked against him,” Lee said. “But now for the first time we can identify who these people are.”
Lee, who also heads the nongovernmental organization Rescue the North Korean People!, declined to identify the source of the report beyond saying it came from intelligence circles of countries that participate in the six-party denuclearization talks.
However, a search of the North’s official Korean Central News Agency confirms that Hyon and Ri have been Kim’s frequent companions, joining him for six inspection appearances in April alone.
Although the two generals are not top tier in the military hierarchy, they are considered far more powerful than their superiors, and according to the report, are two of what North Koreans call the “five real power-wielders” of the nation, along with Jang Song Taek and two other influential members of the Worker’s Party, Ri Je Gang and Ri Jae Il.
Their presence had become increasingly notable since Kim resumed his public appearances last October after reportedly suffering a stroke. The two have been seen accompanying Kim not only during military inspections, but on trips to various other facilities, apparently diversifying their range of influence.
“The general view leans toward the opinion that Jang Song Taek has seized control of the military, but as the report indicates, the hierarchy does not reflect the actual power structure,” Lee of Kansai University said. “This in turn suggests the fragility of Jang’s grasp on power.”
The report obtained by Lee Young Hwa cites certain past incidents to question the extent of Hyon Chol Hae’s and Ri Myong Su’s loyalty to Kim, and whether Kim in fact considers them trustworthy.
The report points out how Hyon Chol Hae’s older brother, Hyon Chol Gyu, a Worker’s Party secretary, was dismissed from his job and hasn’t been heard of since, as punishment after his nephew and wife defected to South Korea in January 1996.
Although Kim apparently pardoned Hyon Chol Hae, the report says Hyon must be under heavy scrutiny ever since for having a traitor in the family, and was likely living under constant fear of retaliation.
Ri Myong Su, on the other hand, worked as the strategic director of the People’s Army — a prestigious position — before being transferred to the National Defense Commission after being charged with fraud and corruption in April 2007. There is a high possibility Ri feels disillusioned with Kim, and insecure about his future, the report says.
Lee Young Hwa, an expert on North Korea and author of several books on the secretive regime, said the two generals’ frequent accompaniment of Kim on the military and facilities inspections may be Kim’s way of keeping a close eye on their actions.
“It’s been reported that Hyon and Ri were the most loyal of Kim’s men, but that’s come into question now,” he said.
The report adds there was convincing analysis suggesting that Hyon Chol Hae may be using his advocacy of Kim’s second and third sons as the nation’s heir to secure his unstable standing. Jong Nam, the eldest son, has repeatedly made clear to foreign media he is not interested in the top spot and is not his father’s choice for the job.
“Despite being Kim Jong Il’s closest aides, Hyon Chol Hae and Ri Myong Su are in a position to renege in times of emergency,” the report says.
“If the situation in the regime changes, it’s likely that these two generals may become the ‘eye of the storm,’ ” Lee said.