Try to read the mysterious inner workings of North Korea’s leadership with much confidence, and you do so at your peril. That’s one lesson from the revelation that several apparently purged North Korean officials were included on a committee tasked with organizing the funeral of one of the military’s most senior leaders.
Han Kwang-sang and Kim Kyong-ok were among the most prominent of several supposedly purged officials named on the list of committee members, which was released by North Korean state media ahead of the funeral of Marshal Ri Ul-sol on Wednesday.
The committee list was widely seen as a rundown of the country’s top brass, and the inclusion of Han and Kim indicates that they remain alive and in favor with the regime.
In May, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told local lawmakers that Han was among 15 senior officials executed so far this year. The intelligence briefing came seven months after North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group of activist defectors, claimed that Kim had been ordered killed.
Both Han, who headed the finance department of the Korean Workers’ Party, and Kim, first deputy director of the ruling party’s powerful Organization and Guidance Department, were regarded as among ruler Kim Jong-un’s closest aides.
“Both of them accompanied Jong-un pretty regularly the last few years then suddenly dropped out of sight,” Michael Madden, who noted their “Lazarus-like” return on his blog North Korea Leadership Watch, told The Diplomat.
“Kim was rumored to have been executed at the time last year, while rumors of Han’s execution came out the same time as Gen. Hyon Yong-chol back in May,” Madden added. “Very difficult for dead men to be members of a funeral committee, and their names would not be on the committee if they were not on good terms with the core leadership.”
Madden said their previous absence from view could mean they retired or had been temporarily marginalized.
Reports of bloody purges in North Korea have proven incorrect before. In 2013, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Hyon Song-wol, a popular singer in North Korea, was executed by firing squad for her part in a sex scandal, only for her to later reappear on North Korean television.
“Newspapers and media outlets pick up on something in ROK (South Korean) media and report it. So it’s really more a matter of the sources that talk to ROK media or the DPRK (North Korean) citizens who talk to defector media outlets in the ROK,” said Madden. “With regard to the former, it’s human assets and the process of intelligence collection that yield slipshod information. With regard to the latter, some of the defector media’s sources rely on third-hand information and gossip which may not be accurate.”
The release of the funeral committee list on Sunday sparked little media reflection on how speculative and often inaccurate even official intelligence gathering on North Korea can be. It did, however, lead media and analysts to return to the subject of leadership purges: the absence of Choe Ryong-hae, who has been called the second most powerful man in North Korea, predictably sparked another round of speculation about the possible demotion or execution of another of Kim Jong-un’s right-hand men.
Since 2012, Choe Ryong-hae has repeatedly been the subject of reports depicting his rise within the regime, shortly followed by his marginalization.