Let the Hawks Soar

With less than three months left before the 7th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Congress is scheduled to convene in May, Kim Jong Un appears to be appointing hardliners to key national security positions. The growing prominence of these officials—party cadres and military officers who support a more belligerent policy toward the ROK, the United States and Japan, and who generally do not favor North-South engagement—is worthy of note for those focused on North Korea.

In appointing hardliners, the supreme leader may be trying to balance the divergent interests and agendas of  competing constituencies, which can be broadly identified as: hawks disposed to tighter domestic restrictions and moderates (and a few reformers) seeking somewhat looser social and economic controls as well as opportunities to expand cultural and economic contacts. Possible additional personnel changes near or after the meeting might form a more stable environment in which Kim could implement longer-term policies.

In the meantime, given the North’s nuclear test in January and satellite launch in February, Pyongyang watchers should expect the coming months to resemble the tense geostrategic environment last seen during the spring of 2013, after the North’s third nuclear test, when Pyongyang declared a national emergency, mobilized its military and declared that the safety of foreign citizens in the two Koreas could not be guaranteed. Three recent appointments—Rim Kwang Il, Kim Yong Chol and Ri Myong Su—suggest the country will answer a new round of denunciations with heightened brinkmanship in advance of its 7th Party Congress.

Rim Kwang Il

In the second half of 2015, Lieutenant-General Rim Kwang Il was appointed Director of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff Operations Bureau, arguably the most powerful position in North Korea’s armed forces.[1] An unabashed hawk, the 51-year-old has spent much of his military career in the KPA’s forward-deployed ground corps. These units are deployed along the MDL and would be first to protect the DPRK from an invasion from the South or, conversely, the first to attack the ROK in a Northern invasion. In 2015, he took part in the planning and command of the DMZ landmine deployments that precipitated the inter-Korean crisis in August.

Rim Kwang Il attends military exercises with Kim Jong Un in January 2016. (Photo: KCNA)
Rim Kwang Il attends military exercises with Kim Jong Un in January 2016. (Photo: KCNA)

This KPA director position has seen a dramatic turnover since Kim Jong Un came to power,[2] strongly suggesting that Kim has taken a more active role than his father in the daily operational command of the North’s armed forces.[3] Meanwhile, the supreme leader has continued a generational change within the KPA high command,[4] gradually removing all military commanders who gained their formative military experience in the Fatherland Liberation War (Korean War).[5] While leaders of Lieutenant-General Rim’s[6] generation have studied traditional combined arms operations like their predecessors, they began their careers when the DPRK was starting to develop and expand an asymmetric warfare toolkit that now includes light infantry special operations forces, cyber and other electronic warfare capabilities, and weapons of mass destruction. North Korea’s high command now consists of general-grade officers who know how to integrate the KPA’s conventional assets with asymmetric capabilities in military planning and training. As a result, North Korean leaders seem to be better prepared to use asymmetric tactics in future military provocations.

Kim Yong Chol

The rise of hawks in the DPRK’s national security establishment and political culture are even more evident in the recent appointment of Kim Yong Chol as WPK Secretary and Director of the United Front Department (UFD), a civilian intelligence agency and policymaking shop which formulates the North’s policy toward South Korea and manages ROK interactions.[7] The 70-year-old is a four-star general and a career military intelligence official.[8]

Kim Yong Chol is the former head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), which manages the bulk of the DPRK’s intelligence community, who was implicated as having a major role in the 2010 sinking of the ROK naval corvette Cheonan.[9] In addition, he manages cyberwarfare units alleged to have been involved in cyberattacks against South Korea.

Kim Yong Chol attends a national meeting on February 15, 2016. (Photo: Korean Central Television/NK Leadership Watch screen grab)
Kim Yong Chol attends a national meeting on February 15, 2016. (Photo: Korean Central Television/NK Leadership Watch screen grab)

In 2009, Kim Yong Chol supervised the migration of three key intelligence agencies—the Operations Department, the External Liaison Department and Office No. 35—from the WPK Central Committee (the party apparatus) to the RGB, which was then placed under the National Defense Commission (NDC). The sole holdout was UFD, which remains firmly under WPK control.[10]

Given Kim Yong Chol’s involvement in the 2009 intelligence reorganization, what are the likely institutional effects of his new WPK and UFD appointments? As the overseer of UFD’s formidable bureaucratic fiefdom, Kim may now take a more active role in formulating the DPRK’s substantive policies toward the ROK. He would be able to exercise some control over personnel appointments to various ROK-related organizations involving cultural exchanges, civilian aid and public affairs. In addition, he would have a hand in selecting the DPRK representatives who participate in further inter-Korean interactions. Finally, Kim Yong Chol would have an active role in the management of the Kaesong Industrial Complex[11]—if it reopens—which he previously inspected in his capacity as a senior KPA official.[12]

At least two possible interests may have motivated Kim Yong Chol’s UFD appointment.

  1. The regime may want to return all of its intelligence programs and assets to direct Party control, dissolving the RGB as it has existed for the last seven years and tasking Kim Yong Chol with overseeing an expanded UFD on behalf of the WPK Central Committee.[13] If this is the case, Kim Jong Un would be re-establishing the intelligence structure established by his grandfather and signal stronger and less ambiguous Party control of the military. Kim may also gain control over elements of the WPK International Affairs Department (IAD), which contains some basic intelligence collection and analysis units. Like his predecessor at UFD, Kim Yong Chol is juggling leadership responsibilities for both UFD and IAD in order to cope with the declining health of Kang Sok Ju, the latter organization’s current director.[14]
  2. Kim Yang Gon’s demise and Kim Yong Chol’s appointment could conceivably be linked to a military plot to grab revenue from the Kaesong Industrial Complex.[15] If some insider ordered Kim Yang Gon’s death,[16] the perpetrator might well have guessed that the supreme leader would replace the late UFD boss with Kim Yong Chol, who was already well positioned at Kaesong to support a money grab.[17] There may also be a personal motivation because Kim Yang Gon—and other senior cadres at UFD, IAD and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—called for Kim Yong Chol’s ouster as head of the RGB because they viewed him as an impediment to inter-Korean interactions and better relations.[18]

It is also worth noting that Kim Yong Chol had served as the chief North Korean delegate in several rounds of inter-Korean talks in 1991-92 and 2006-07 (and maybe more). He might be a hardliner, but if Kim Jong Un wanted to reach for someone in a hurry who had long experience actually at the negotiating table with the ROK, who knew the history by heart and had the authority to stare down the South Koreans, it would be Kim Yong Chol.

Ri Myong Su

In early February, prior to the launch of the Kwangmyongsong-4, General Ri Yong Gil was removed from his position as Chief of the KPA General Staff.[19] Replacing him is General Ri Myong Su, an 82-year-old who had been in retirement for more than two years prior to his latest appointment. Previously, he served concurrently as Minister of People’s Security and as a National Defense Commission member. From 1996 to 2007, he was Director of the KPA General Staff Operations Bureau. General Ri is one of the symbolic faces of the DPRK’s songun (military-first) politics because of his high command position during the 1990s.[20] More substantively, General Ri’s crisis-management experience is certain to prove useful as international tensions rise this year.[21]

General Ri Myong Su talks with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in July 2011. (Photo: KCNA)
General Ri Myong Su talks with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un in July 2011. (Photo: KCNA)

General Ri’s advancing age bucks the trend of recent personnel appointments that have favored relatively younger officials, but he possesses valuable institutional memory and experience in both the North’s internal security apparatus and its conventional armed forces. If the vertiginous nature of the numerous personnel changes to the KPA high command metastasized into internal instability, for example, Kim Jong Un’s survival could depend on someone with Ri Myong Su’s level of institutional knowledge and experience.[22] In short, General Ri possesses the necessary command experience and ability to keep more ambitious hardliners in check as their influence grows.


These recent personnel appointments show a continuation of two trends. First, an unfolding generational change in the KPA high command meant to equip the military leadership with the ability to plan and exploit relatively new military assets. Second, Kim Yong Chol’s appointment provides Pyongyang watchers with another salient example of a senior military official migrating from the upper echelon of the KPA to the upper levels of the party leadership.[23]

For Kim Jong Un, the appointment of hawkish and hardline senior officials appears strategic. Hawks and hardliners are traditionally the most loyal to the Kim family’s leadership, even if the hawks may possess and press their own agendas in front of the supreme leader. At the same time, a power balance is underway prior to the convocation of the 7th Party Congress in May. The gathering is likely to establish a more prominent role for the Party, greater civilian control over state resources, and stronger Party control over the North’s armed forces.[24] Therefore, Kim Jong Un seems to be practicing inclusive politics by letting military officials migrate into the Party power structure and putting hawks at the head of the military. In the short term, the hawks in high positions will serve Kim Jong Un well as tensions continue to rise on the peninsula.


[1] The Operations Bureau’s responsibilities include all military planning and operations of the North’s conventional armed forces, the training and planning of each corps-level unit within the KPA, the operations and training of the Pyongyang Defense Command and Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), and reporting directly to the KPA Supreme Command. The Director of the Operations Bureau takes precedence over all the other General Staff’s subordinate bureaus and his power eclipses that of the Chief of the General Staff. The No. 2 Department of the Operations Bureau contains the office of the Supreme Command. When the DPRK declares a national emergency or puts itself on a “semi-war” status as it did during August 2015, the General Staff Operations Bureau assumes command and control over the North’s armed forces on behalf of the KPA supreme commander, facilitating the supreme commander’s interactions directly with corps- and division-level commanders and allowing Kim Jong Un to issue orders directly to the field command staff.

[2] The General Staff Operations Bureau’s directorship has seen more personnel attrition than any other position affecting the KPA’s high command since Kim Jong Un came to power four years ago. There have been seven directors of the Operations Bureau, including Lieutenant-General Rim. They were: Kim Myong Guk (a holdover from Kim Jong Il); Choe Pu Il (2012 to 2013 and appointed Minister of People’s Security); Ri Yong Gil (March 2013 to August 2013 and appointed Chief of the General Staff); Pyon In Son (August 2013, removed from office in late 2014 and rumored to have been executed); and Kim Chun Sam (reappointed in mid-2015). In contrast, under Kim Jong Il, the Operations Bureau was literally traded between only two men: General Kim Myong Guk (who served from 1994 to 1996, then again from 2007 to 2011) and General Ri Myong Su (who served from 1996 to 2007). Contrast this with the five defense ministers appointed under Kim Jong Un and four Chiefs of the KPA General Staff.

[3] This change would mark a major shift in how the Suryong commands and controls KPA’s conventional elements. Whereas Kim Jong Il delegated his command-and-control responsibilities to the office’s director and made the bureau his primary interface with the KPA, Kim Jong Un is using the director as his proxy and closest military aide while increasing his interactions (and relationships) with field commanders. Administrative institutions such as the General Staff Operations Bureau’s No. 2 department, which had served as an intermediary between the Suryong and the KPA, may also have migrated to the KPA Supreme Command apparatus in Kim Jong Un’s executive office, the Personal Secretariat. This would represent a formalization of the role of KPA Supreme Commander, the first supreme power position that Kim Jong Un held in the regime when he was appointed by his father on October 11, 2011. Until Kim Jong Un came to power, the supreme commander role seemed like little more than a honorific appellation held by his father and grandfather, incidental to more substantive positions such as Chairman of the National Defense Commission, DPRK President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

[4] This generational shift began with Rim Kwang Il’s predecessor at the Operations Bureau, Lieutenant-General Kim Chun Sam, who was in his forties at the time of his appointment.

[5] The new generation of military commanders also has largely received their education, training and indoctrination within the DPRK, whereas their predecessors completed their professional military education in Russia.

[6] Note that under Kim Jong Il, this position was usually held by someone at three-star colonel-general or four-star general level. However, under Kim Jong Un, the position has been filled with two-star lieutenant-generals, as was the case under Kim Il Sung.

[7] General Kim Yong Chol has been a public face for the KPA since the early 1990s.

[8] Kim Yong Chol’s appointment at UFD was the focus of speculation after the death of Kim Yang Gon on December 29, 2015. However, his appointment was not confirmed until a joint expanded meeting of the WPK Central Committee and the KPA Party Committee held on February 2 and February 3, 2016. At that meeting, Kim Yong Chol appeared on the platform with other members of the WPK Central Committee Secretariat and was shown on state television addressing the meeting.

[9] Now that Kim Yong Chol has vacated his position at RGB, Kim Jong Un has the option to fill that opening with a younger official. If he takes that option, he might appoint a general-grade officer in his fifties. (“Younger” is a relative word when discussing generational changes in the DPRK’s political culture.) Such an appointment would fit a pattern of relatively young officers being named to top KPA command roles.

[10] The 2009 intelligence community reorganization occurred as Kim Jong Un’s hereditary succession drive gathered momentum, but it would be misleading to correlate the succession with the RGB’s rise. Rather, this consolidation process was tied to Kim Jong Il’s expansion of the authority and governmental role of the National Defense Commission and his delineation of lines of communication and authority to cope with his advanced age and declining health by consolidating the reporting process to the late leader.

[11] The Kaesong Industrial Complex occupies land previously occupied by the II Army Corps’ 6th Division and the 62nd Artillery Brigade.

[12] The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which is now under Kim Yang Gon’s management in his capacity as head of UFD, issued a February 11 statement outlining procedures for the DPRK’s takeover of the Kaesong complex. See “CPRK Issues Statement on the Closure of Kaeso’ng Industrial Zone.” NK Leadership Watch, February 11, 2016, https://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/2016/02/11/cprk-issues-statement-on-the-closure-of-kaesong-industrial-zone/.

[13] In this case, military and paramilitary assets and personnel would remain part of the smaller RGB and resemble the former Ministry of People’s Armed Forces Reconnaissance Bureau, which Kim Yong Chol previously led.

[14] For example, Kim Yong Chol recently made a two-day visit to Laos as Kim Jong Un’s personal representative to congratulate Lao leadership on its own party gathering.

[15] The complex, it should be noted, sits on a parcel of land which Kim Jong Il ordered the KPA to vacate in order to develop it as an inter-Korean project.

[16] Kim Yong Chol attained the UFD directorship after his predecessor, Kim Yang Gon, reportedly died in a car accident. When announced in DPRK state media as an official cause of death, auto accidents are sometimes construed to mean that a senior official was killed by another faction in the leadership, or even by the Suryong himself, in lieu of a firing squad, dismissal or disappearance. No direct evidence implicates Kim Yong Chol in Kim Yang Gon’s death, but bureaucratic infighting has placed the two officials at loggerheads in the past. Kim Yang Gon prevented Kim Yong Chol and his core leadership allies from absorbing his old UFD turf into the RGB.

[17] Kim Yong Chol has decades of experience working in the DPRK’s intelligence community. He speaks several languages and, like his predecessor, he is highly intelligent about policy and adept at Pyongyang’s policymaking process. He is an experienced bureaucratic infighter who can make his case effectively in front of the supreme leader and, like his most recent forebear, he has significant experience interacting with different foreign interlocutors.

[18] Kim Yong Chol legitimately feared for his career in 2010 and 2011.

[19] General Ri held this KPA high command position for over two years, the longest tenure of any holder of the title under Kim Jong Un. Initial reporting about Ri Yong Gil’s dismissal is sketchy, but South Korean intelligence sources claim that he was executed for corruption and factionalism. It remains to be seen if he has been killed or if he will turn up in another position. According to South Korean intelligence sources, Ri was charged with acts of factionalism within the KPA and may have defied orders from Kim Jong Un.

[20] He appears at Kim Jong Il’s side in films and photos promoting the KPA and songun politics, and he is even shown on postage stamps depicting the North’s armed forces.

[21] He was appointed head of the Operations Bureau following three separate incidents in which KPA personnel approached or engaged ROK forces at the DMZ and NLL. He was also in the driver’s seat when KPA forces fired on ROK positions in 1997. In addition, he played leadership roles in naval skirmishes between the two Koreas in 1999 and 2002, and in incidents of ground and naval encroachment into ROK and via the NLL by KPA personnel in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006.

[22] It should be noted, however, that Ri Myong Su is probably serving on an interim basis and may not remain in his current position beyond early summer. There is a precedent for a short-term appointment by Kim Jong Un: the four-month tenure of the late General Kim Kyok Sik, who served as Chief of the KPA General Staff prior to the August 2013 appointment of General Ri Yong Gil.

[23] One of the most interesting conjunctions in the latest leadership shuffle is the history shared by Kim Yong Chol and Ri Myong Su in the military patronage network of the late Vice Marshal Jang Song U, the older brother of the executed NDC Vice Chairman Jang Song Taek. Vice Marshal Jang took an interest in Kim Yong Chol back in the 1960s and helped him attain career advancement. Ri Myong Su served under Vice Marshal Jang from the late 1980s and the early 1990s and recommended Ri to Kim Jong Il for position at the Operations Bureau. Ultimately, these officials enjoyed the patronage of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un and Kim Kyong Hui. In the case of Ri Myong Su, though, he was interrogated and investigated around the same time Jang Song Taek was dismissed and executed.

[24] James Pearson and Ju-min Park, “North Korea nuclear test paves way for rare party congress,” Reuters, January 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-nuclear-congress-idUSKCN0UW29Z.

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