N. Korea replaces unofficial No. 2 man

AFP-JIJI

The second-in-command in the North Korean hierarchy after Kim Jong Un has been replaced as head of the army’s political department, the official Korean Central News Agency said Friday, signaling a major leadership change.

In a report on May Day celebrations in Pyongyang, KCNA named Hwang Pyong So as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, not Choe Ryong Hae, the previous incumbent.

Hwang’s appointment came just days after KCNA reported his promotion to the rank of vice marshal, a rank shared with Choe and four others, on April 28.

Choe was widely believed to have moved into the role of North Korea’s unofficial No. 2 following the execution in December of Kim’s uncle and political mentor, Jang Song Thaek. Seen as Kim’s close aide, Choe assumed the post of vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission last month.

Choe had dropped from public sight on several occasions in recent months, once for as long as three weeks, prompting speculation that he might have been purged. But he reappeared, and his replacement as head of the army’s political department is believed to be due to serious health problems.

Hwang was said in the KCNA report Friday to have addressed a banquet in Pyongyang held for workers at a textile mill, attended by commanding officers. A report on KCNA earlier in the week said Hwang accompanied Kim on a tour of a newly built workers’ hostel at the mill but made no mention of Choe, sparking initial speculation of the leadership shuffle.

Speculation about changes at the top of the regime in Pyongyang intensified following Jang’s execution. In February, North Korea promoted a host of key military officials, including the chief of its rocket unit, the Strategic Rocket Force Command, which operates the country’s mid- and long-range missile program.