SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - A close aide of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is rumored to have been purged and may be undergoing re-education as punishment, a source in Seoul said Thursday.
Choe Ryong Hae, secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, once was viewed as one of North Korea’s most powerful figures and was seen as Pyongyang’s point man on Beijing. Choe traveled to Beijing in September on behalf of Kim to attend a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Speculation about Choe's fate surfaced after his name did not appear on a list of a state funeral committee set up to mourn the death of Ri Ul Sol, a marshal of the Korean People’s Army who participated in a guerrilla war against the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II along with North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Ri, 94, died of lung cancer Saturday.
In the past, such a list often was a key indicator of the communist country’s power hierarchy. On Wednesday, Choe missed Ri's funeral, fueling speculation that he might have been purged.
Despite the speculation, Choe may not have lost ties to power completely, according to the source familiar with North Korean affairs. Instead, Choe may have been dismissed and sent to a collective farm for re-education, a form of punishment less severe than a purge.
The reason for Choe's apparent ouster isn't clear, but Cheong Seong-chang, unification strategy studies director at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, who specializes in the North Korean power structure, cited Choe’s family background as a possibility. Choe is the son of Choe Hyun, an iconic military figure who also was a member of a guerrilla unit that fought against the Japanese army.
Choe’s dismissal could be Kim Jong Un’s calculated move to remove the descendants of the first generation of top military officials, who are holding key positions in the military and the party, from his inner circle, Cheong said.
“Choe’s dismissal is likely to diminish the influence of the second generation of the North Korean guerrillas and embolden a rule by Kim’s inner circle,” Cheong said.
Some speculate that Choe could have been fired for corruption. He was known to have been punished twice for corruption in the past.
Cheong said Choe’s fall from power, if it indeed happened, could send shock waves through the North Korean power structure, stirring unrest among his followers and associates. But Cheong added that the aftermath of Choe’s fall was not likely to bring political instability to the regime immediately.
In May, South Korea’s intelligence agency said about 70 North Korean officials have been executed since Kim took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.
Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.