The two Koreas shocked everyone on Saturday when a North Korean military delegation led by Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae, and Kim Yang-gon arrived in Incheon, South Korea on an unannounced trip.
Although the North Korean leadership structure is highly opaque, Hwang Pyong-so is widely believed to be the second highest ranking official after only Kim Jong-un. Officially, he holds the titles of the director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau (seen as the second highest military official after the supreme commander), vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, and first deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s (WPK) Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). Many North Korean defectors and foreign experts claim the OGD is the most powerful body within the DPRK.
Christopher Green, manager of International Affairs for Daily NK and co-editor of Sino-NK, tells The Diplomat that this is the first time North Korea’s presumptive number two has visited South Korea since Jang Song-taek in 2002. (Green, like many North Korean experts, did stress the ambiguity and impreciseness of labeling anyone North Korea’s No. 2.)
Although Hwang appears to be the most senior official in the delegation, Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yang-gon are also among the most powerful men in the North Korean regime. In fact, Choe, a close military aide to Kim Jong-un’s father, was widely viewed as North Korea’s No. 2 following the purge of Jang Song-taek last December. However, this spring he was replaced by Hwang as director of the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau. Then, last month, Hwang also replaced Choe as vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. He currently holds the titles of WPK secretary for Workers’ Organization and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission. The North Korean regime may be hoping to solidify Hwang’s status as No. 2 with this trip.
Kim Yang-gon is the director of North Korea’s United Front Department, which is the body that handles relations with South Korea and implements many other aspects of the North’s South Korean policy. He was also part of the last senior North Korean delegation to visit South Korea in 2009.
The official purpose of the delegation’s visit is to attend the closing ceremonies of the 17th Asian Games. However, it seems unlikely that such a senior level North Korean delegation would be visiting South Korea unless they were needed for some activity that could not be entrusted to more junior officials. This would most likely be negotiating on important or sensitive issues, although some speculated they may have made the visit to deliver a secret message from Kim Jong-un to the South Korean government.
This latter view is bolstered by the fact that the delegation is expected to return home Saturday afternoon following the closing ceremonies, suggesting that no intense negotiations will take place. The three North Korean officials did meet with South Korean officials upon their arrival on Saturday morning, and attended a luncheon with South Korea’s Unification Minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, and national security adviser, Kim Kwan-jin.
Their visit comes at a time when Kim Jong-un has not been seen publicly in a month and North Korea’s official media has said he is suffering from health problems.