SEOUL - In North Korea, the notable absence of one of Kim Jong Un's most powerful aides at a state funeral is sparking speculation of another high-level purge inside the secretive authoritarian regime.
Choe Ryong Hae, secretary of the ruling Workers' Party, was not among the names on the list of about 170 officials attending this week's state funeral for Ri Ul Sol, a 94-year-old marshal of the Korean People’s Army, who fought alongside North Korean founder Kim Il Sung against the Japanese in World War Two.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry Monday noted it was odd that the high-ranking Choe was not on the state funeral list but offered no explanation as to why.
'It is unusual'
"Given the North's track record, it is unusual that a North Korean official such as Choe was not on the list," said Unification ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.
Choe was considered one of Kim Jong Un's most trusted envoys.
In 2013, Kim Jong Un dispatched him to Beijing to convey a personal message to Chinese President Xi Jinping. And in September of this year Choe represented North Korea at China's World War Two victory anniversary parade.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said it is premature to say with any certainty whether Choe has been removed from his position based on his absence from the funeral list as well as Choe’s failure to personally offer condolences at Marshal Ri’s wake.
Seen on television
If a high-level official is purged, his images are usually cut from official documentaries and news reports that run on state television. But professor Kim said Choe was seen on TV just last week.
“He repeatedly appeared in North Korean documentaries from November 4th to the 8th, so we need to see carefully whether he has been purged or not,” professor Kim said.
Since Kim Jong Un took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011, he has reportedly purged a number of high-level officials.
In 2013 Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek, was executed for allegedly plotting a military coup, although analysts suggest that the uncle’s offense was overstepping his role as mentor to the young North Korean leader and being seen as a rival source of power.
Earlier this year North Korea Armed Forces Minister Hyon Yong Chol was reportedly executed in Pyongyang for making disloyal and disparaging remarks about Kim Jong Un and falling asleep during a military event.
About 70 North Korean officials have been executed since 2011, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. Also the NIS said 20 to 30 percent of senior party officials and more than 40 percent of senior military officers have been purged or replaced.
Speculation among analysts is split as to whether the high number of purges and executions is a sign of instability within the secretive regime or whether it indicates Kim Jong Un’s tightening grip on power.
Professor Kim said that if the purge of Choe is confirmed, it would reinforce the view that this is part of a concerted effort to replace the aging officials loyal to Kim Jong Un’s father with his own people.
“If true, it gives us a message that the generational shift in Kim Jong Un’s regime is moving quite fast,” professor Kim said.
Cheong Seong-chang, Unification Strategy Studies director at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said Kim Jong Un’s propensity to remove and replace officials is also a shift in the governing philosophies between he and his father.
Cheong speculates that Kim Jong Il, who was a renowned movie fan, ruled like a film director carefully selecting and orchestrating his cast of officials, while his son, who is more of a basketball enthusiast, acts like an impatient coach.
“Unlike the movie director Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un substitutes frequently his players if they do not fulfill his criteria and his orders,” said Cheong.
Speculation about political purges and executions are common in North Korea, where little is known about the actual inner workings of power within the totalitarian regime, and where state media is tightly controlled and foreign media is basically forbidden to operate.
And the rumors sometimes turn out not to be true.
In 2014, a report claiming that Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed by throwing him to a pack of ravenous dogs was discredited after it went viral.
General Choe Pu Il, head of North Korea's Ministry of People's Security, was rumored to be demoted earlier this year. But his name is on the list of high-ranking officials attending Wednesday's state funeral, indicating that he has been rehabilitated or that reports of his political demise were premature.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.