Updated: Kim Jong-un’s New Entourage (Reprint)

Photo Credit: Rodong Sinmun[1]

By Andy Lim

Understanding Pyongyang Inner Circle

Studying Pyongyang leadership is an unenviable task, much like Kremlinologists who received no credit for their work after they failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but it should not be a thankless one. When confronted with a regime as closed and as secretive as Pyongyang’s, the only way for scholars to get around the fog is to capitalize on the little information available, although sometimes that information might turn out to be unreliable. The task becomes even more difficult when dealing with a regime in Pyongyang that purges officials on a regular basis, where the term Pyongyang shuffle, a seemingly poor Machiavellian joke is used to demonstrate how quickly people can fall from grace.

This piece, in its attempt to examine the up and rising military and party officials who have emerged under Kim Jong-un during the past two years, might seem like a Sisyphean task given the opacity and the quick turnaround rate of purges in Pyongyang. But in trying to understand who in the post-Jang period are most likely to fill the power vacuum besides the Dear Leader, one can piece together how Kim Jong-un reshuffles his key personnel to accomplish his ultimate goal of consolidating his unitary leadership. How long these officials stay in the limelight is not important, but it is rather who and what purposes they serve that demonstrates the bigger picture for regime stability in the Kim dynasty.

Who are they?

These fourteen rising new Pyongyang elites are confidants of Kim Jong-un (KJU), who have consolidated his power further with the purge and execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek on December 2013. Their promotions, and their rise, are a preview of the new echelon of leadership who might support him for the years to come.

The first section looks at the period after Jang Song-thaek’s death (December 2013), when their rise and prominence were undeniable and prompted a much publicized report from the South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) hyping their importance. This section provides the bulk of their biographic details and their path to the spotlight.

The second section looks at them again three to four months after, beginning with the election of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on March 9, 2014 and leading up to the convening of the SPA itself on April 9. The sections are divided by a time skip to demonstrate whether the people profiled here have withstood the test of time, or Kim Jong-un’s patience.


1. Post-Jang Song-thaek (December 2013)

Military officers

The following are a group of military officers who participated in the 2nd meeting of National Security Personnel on November 20, 2013. Present in this meeting were six men who were pictured prominently with KJU on the first and second page of the WPK party paper Rodong Sinmun. They were seated to the left and right of the leadership podium. These six men were Choe Ryong-hae, seated directly to the right of Kim, Kim Won-hong, Ryom Chol-song,  Jo Kyung-chol, Kim Su-gil, and Hwang Pyong-so. This group of men are important military officials who are critical to Kim Jong-un’s control of the armed forces, and by extension of the regime. Out of this group, the military officer who has made the biggest leap in prominence is Hwang Pyong-so, who has replaced Choe Ryong-hae as the No. 2 man in Pyongyang since April of this year.

* Vice-Marshal Hwang Pyong-so (66) is the new Director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. He replaced Choe Ryong-hae in the powerful post during a meeting of the KWP Central Military Commission on April 26, 2014, where he was also elevated to the rank of Vice Marshal. His promotion was widely publicized by North Korean state two days later, revealing his new status within the Pyongyang hierarchy. He is also a member of the National Defense Commission, the KWP’s Central Military Commission, the KWP Political Bureau, the KWP Central Committee and was elected as a deputy member to the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly on March 9, 2014.

Before his promotion, he served as the deputy director of the powerful WPK’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), which is in charge of military appointments and organization, and the implementation of the leader’s teachings. He was publicly identified as the First Vice Director of the OGD on March 21, 2014, and promoted to a four star-general later that month, which was the beginning of his rise.

Born in 1946, Hwang attended the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School and Kim Il Sung University, where he was reportedly a classmate of Kim Kyong-hui. He came on the elite scene in 2005 when he began accompanying Kim Jong-il on guidance tours, which was also the same year he was promoted to his current position within the OGD. Like Kim Won-hong, he was elected as an alternate member of the WPK Central Committee at the 3rd Party Conference in September 2010. Hwang was promoted to colonel general in April 2011, and was featured prominently on state media during its coverage of Kim’s inspection of the KPA Strategic Rocket Force Command in 2012.

General Kim Won Hong (67) is the Minister of State Security, the highest intelligence organ in North Korea, a position which he assumed in April 2012. He became a member of the WPK’s Central Committee and the CMC at the 3rd Party Conference on September 28, 2010, where he sat next to KJU. He also became a full member of the WPK Politburo during the 4th Party Conference in April 2012. His rise, like Choe’s, is closely tied with KJU’s succession process. He previously served as the director of the Military Security Command, before he was appointed as director of the KPA General Political Department’s Organization Bureau in February 2009, as part of Kim Jong-il’s plan to put in place military officers who would support the successor, KJU.

General Jo Kyung-chol (age unknown) has been the Director of the Military Security Command (MSC) since 2009. MSC monitors the activities and loyalties of the KPA and arrests and investigates military officers and civilians. It is also in charge of Kim Jong-un’s personal security as well as other officials’ security during guidance tours. He was promoted to the rank of general in May 2014.

Lieutenant General Ryom Chol-song (age unknown) is a deputy director of the Ministry of People’ Armed Forces’ General Political Bureau, and the director of the Propaganda Bureau within it. His specific bureau is responsible for the political education of KPA officers and psychological warfare against South Korea. He first began accompanying Kim Jong-un on trips in February 2013.

Lieutenant General Kim Su Gil (age unknown) is a deputy director of the Ministry of People’ Armed Forces’ General Political Bureau, and the director of the Organization Bureau within it. His Organization Bureau is responsible for monitoring KPA officer and managing political and social organizations within the army. It also functions as a department within the General Political Bureau to deal with promotions, military awards and job placements. He accompanied Vice Marshal Choe during his May 2013 Beijing trip.

National Security Personnel Meeting (800x421)

2nd meeting of the National Security Personnel on November 20, 2013[2]

In addition to these six military officials, there are two more KPA officials of note who wield tremendous influence within Kim’s inner circle, Generals Ri Yong-gil and Jang Jong-nam prior to April 2014. General Jang has since been demoted and moved out of the spotlight in the latest round of reshuffling at the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces (MPAF). Replacing him at the MPAF is General Hyon Yong Chol.

General Ri Yong-gil (60s) is the KPA Chief of General Staff, a position he assumed in August 2013. Ri was previously identified in March 2013 as the director of the General Staff’s Operations Bureau, a powerful position which had direct access to the leader during Kim Jong-il’s time. Earlier in his career, he was the commander of the Third and Fifth Corps, the latter situated on the frontlines in Kangwon province. He accompanied Vice Marshal Choe on his trip to China this year, which cemented his status within the KPA.

General Hyon Yong Chol (60s) has been the Minister of People’s Armed Forces since June 2014. He is the fourth person to hold this post in the Kim Jong-un era. He is concurrently an alternate member of the KWP Political Bureau, a member of the KWP Central Committee, and the NDC. Previously he has served as the Chief of the General Staff of the KPA, commander of the Fifth Corps, chief of the Reconnaissance Bureau and commander of the 8th Corps.

Colonel General Jang Jong-nam (50s) was the Minister of People’s Armed Forces from May 2013 to June 2014, replacing Gen. Kim Kyok-sik.  Previously Jang was identified as the commander of the First Corps in Kangwon province. His rise within the military has accelerated in the last two years, going from major general in April 2002, to lieutenant general in November 2011, and then promoted two ranks within two years to general in 2013.

Tour of Samjiyon (800x409)

Tour of Samjiyon on November 30[3]

Party Officials

The second group accompanied Kim Jong-un on a trip to the provincial village of Samjiyon on November 30, located near Mount Baekdu, the place essential to the founding myth of the Kim family. It included two members from the first group, Kim Won-hong and Hwang Pyong-so, and five new members, Han Kwang-sang, Pak Tae-song, Kim Pyong-ho, Hong Yong-chil and Ma Won-chun. Joining this group of five is Choe Ryong-hae, who moved from the KPA to the KWP in April 2014.

Choe Ryong-hae (63) is the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Secretary and Director of Worker’s Organizations. Before his demotion from his post of Director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in April 26 of this year, he was a man whose meteoric rise to prominence in the past year indicated that he was likely to become the new No. 2 man in the regime in the post-Jang period. But as things operate in Pyongyang, a quick rise can often become a quick plunge overnight. Despite rumors of his purge or a worse fate however, Choe has remained in a prominent position even after his demotion, maintaining a continued if somewhat diminished presence next to Kim Jong-un on the civilian side.

Born in 1950, Choe is a second-generation Pyongyang elite whose father, Choe Hyon was a key associate of Kim Il-sung’s, and had formerly served as Minister of People’s Armed Forces and as National Defense Committee (NDC) Vice Chairman. But until the rise of KJU, Choe was not part of the leadership circle who served Kim Jong-il. In 2012, he received various key promotions – Vice Marshal (four-star general), member of the Political Presidium of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), member of the NDC, and director of the powerful KPA General Political Bureau – which propelled his career and gave him the credentials needed to be Kim’s closest confidant. To this day, more than two years after KJU came into power, Choe remains the highest ranking North Korean official to have visited the regime’s closest ally, China, when he paid a visit in May 2013. As Kim Jong-un’s special envoy, he met with China’s new leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang in Beijing

Han Kwang-sang (age unknown) is the director of the WPK Finance and Accounting Department, which manages funds and assets for the party and for the Kim family. It is also in charge of the payroll and benefits for central party officials and employees. He is the first director of the department since the purge of Ri Pong Su in 2004, and his public appearance was in January 2010 during Kim Jong-il’s guidance tour of Hyangsan Hotel. He formerly served as the vice director of the WPK Finance and Accounting Department, before his promotion to director in the middle of 2013.

Ma Won-chun (58) has been the Director of the NDC Designing Department since May 2014, the same time where he was promoted to be a lieutenant general. He previously served as the deputy director of the WPK Finance and Accounting Department and the chief of the Design Office from 2009 to 2014. He is a former architect from the Paektusan Architectural Institute. Ma’s first appearance with Kim Jong-un was on May 9, 2012 during his inspection of the Mangyongdae Amusement Park. He has since appeared with him on numerous tours to construction projects like the Masik Pass Ski Resort, Unha Scientists’ Street, Munsu Swimming Complex, Mirim Riding Club and many more. The Design Office is responsible for overseeing the designs for facilities used exclusively by the Kim family and Pyongyang elites.

Pak Tae-song (age unknown) is the deputy director of the WPK Organization and Guidance Department. He received the Kim Il-sung Order in April 2012. Pak joined Kim Jong-un’s guidance tours in August 2012, and in 2013 he appeared with KJU a total of 46 times, on par with the 49 times the deceased Jang appeared with KJU.

Kim Pyong-ho (age unknown) is the deputy director of the WPK Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), beginning in August 2012. This department is the primary organ responsible for ideological education, campaigns, and propaganda – Kim Jong-il himself served as director during his succession process. Kim served as deputy general-director of Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) for nine years before being promoted to be the general director of KCNA in February 2010.

Hong Yong-chil (age unknown) is the deputy director of the WPK Machine-Building Industry Department. He began touring with Kim Jong-un on guidance tours in February 2013, mostly to military bases and factories. He reportedly garnered attention when he was bestowed the title of “Labor Hero”- the highest honor in the country – in February 2011 while he was the Party Committee secretary of the Unsan Tool Plant in North Pyongyan Province.

Lastly, there is another important party official, Jo Yon-jun who was not present on the Samgiyon trip, but whose presence at the December 17 memorial service for Kim Jong-il’s death revealed his growing status within Pyongyang.

Jo Yon-jun (age unknown) is the senior deputy director of the WPK Organization and Guidance Department, and an alternate member of the WPK Politburo.


2. The election and convening of the Supreme People’s Assembly (March – April 2014)

Kim Yo-jong, at 26 to 27 years of age is the youngest daughter of the Kim Jong-il, and is the only daughter of Ko Yong-hui, Kim Jong-un’s mother. Her appearance with her brother on March 9 was significant not only because it was the first time she was listed as an official at a public event, but also because she was listed as a senior official right after Hwang Pyong-so. Since then, she has continued to garner public attention, appearing with her brother and her sister-in-law Ri Sol-ju at a Moranbong band concert on March 22, where she was seated in between Han Kwang-sang and Kim Pyong-ho, which were further indications of her seniority level. At this point it is accepted that she holds the position of chief secretary of the WPK, serving primarily as Kim Jong-un’s chief of staff. There are also rumors that she is being primed to assume the role that her aunt, Kim Kyong-hui had served for her brother Kim Jong-il.

The results of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly elections on March 9, 2014 saw 55 percent of the delegates being newly elected, with eleven out of the fourteen people profiled here elected to the parliament. The three who were not chosen this time around were Ryom Chol-song, Kim Pyong-ho and Hong Yong-chil, but concurrently it does not mean they are out of favor either. With the exception of Choe Ryong-hae, Ri Yong-gil and Kim Won-hong, elected to the SPA for the first time were officials such as Hwang Pyong-so, Kim Su-gil, Jo Yon-jun, and Ma Won-chun.

Table: Key Military and Party Officials in the DPRK Regime under Kim Jong-un



Andy Lim is a research intern with the CSIS Office of the Korea Chair.

The Korea Forum seeks showcase the work of younger scholars and policy studies analysts who are working on Korean issues with a policy focus.

The Korea Forum is produced by the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). CSIS a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

[1] https://nkleadershipwatch.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/crm_kjiwpkcc_180614.jpg

[2] http://nkleadershipwatch.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/snmonsp_py_211113kopie8.jpg

[3] http://nkleadershipwatch.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/kjuostscrpr_301113dam.jpg

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