On July 8, The Korea Herald proclaimed that Ri Pyong Chol had risen to “number five” in North Korea’s hierarchy, based on official photographs of his placement at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun memorial tribute to Kim Il Sung. While it is generally not advisable to put too much stock in the changing positions and protocol order of North Korea’s senior officials, the rise of Ri Pyong Chol is worth further analysis. Given Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of authority over Party and state, a decision to elevate a key subordinate like Ri could provide insights into Kim’s plans and priorities. Similarly, decisions to highlight or quote a particular top official other than Kim Jong Un in state media outlets can also provide deeper insights into the regime’s internal and external signaling. As a result, Ri Pyong Chol’s new status and his history merit a deeper look—particularly due to his close association with North Korea’s strategic weapons programs.
At the Right Hand of Kim
The Kumsusan visit was not the first time Ri Pyong Chol has been shown alongside Kim Jong Un in state media. Most recently, Ri was shown sitting at Kim’s right hand in unusual state media coverage of the small “closed-door” meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on July 18. This meeting followed a much larger session with a broad cross-section of military and defense industry leaders, where Ri was shown in photos and video as the only other official on stage with Kim—elevated over an audience of dozens of top generals and other senior officials. He was also the only participant mentioned by name in the KCNA report of these events besides Kim himself, further indicating that Ri’s leadership role as vice chairman clearly set him above and apart from the other members of the CMC.
However, there is more about Ri’s role on the CMC than just the optics from July 18 that indicate his importance in the regime hierarchy. Ri was just named as CMC vice chairman at its May meeting, making the July session not only his first formal CMC meeting in this new capacity, but also the first formal CMC meeting with a vice chairman at all, since the post was apparently left in abeyance in 2016. The reestablishment of this position apparently places Ri in a critical role, both in framing the collective advice of CMC members to Kim and in overseeing execution of guidance from Kim to CMC officials. It also means Ri has essentially been positioned over the leaders of the General Staff Department and the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and their political guidance apparatus, as well as various defense industry organizations.
This new role, particularly when combined with his front-rank appearance at Kumsusan, is a strong indicator of Ri’s prestige, his favor with Kim and his importance within the regime. The CMC vice chairman position has an auspicious and upwardly mobile history. Kim Jong Un himself held the position as his primary post for a little over a year until his father’s death, while he was in the final stages of preparing to assume leadership of North Korea. Choe Ryong Hae later held the position before he went on to assume the two highest posts in the country behind Kim Jong Un—first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission and president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
Launched to Senior Leadership Under Kim Jong Il
Ri Pyong Chol initially rose to senior-level positions and media attention under Kim Jong Il. In 2008, he took command of the Korean People’s Army Air Force and was mentioned by KCNA several times in this capacity, especially for traveling to China and Cuba at the head of military delegations. In 2010, he hit three new career milestones: in April, he was promoted to General; and in September he was named a member of the CMC and the Korean Workers’ Party’s (KWP) Central Committee.
Despite these milestones, further success was not guaranteed. By the time Kim Jong Il died, Ri had not advanced beyond head of the Air Force after four years in the position. While he could have easily faded from the scene not long after the transition of leadership, Ri’s career would soon be dramatically enhanced.
Rising Trajectory Under Kim Jong Un
One of Kim Jong Un’s first military site visits after assuming power was to an Air Force unit, where he was greeted by Ri. Ri was periodically mentioned in state media over the next two years, but his public profile remained unremarkable.
However, after the purge of Jang Song Thaek in December 2013 and during the reshuffling that followed, Ri’s influence grew quickly. By September 2014, Ri was named to the National Defense Commission, then the highest body of authority in North Korea, a sign that he had probably obtained Kim Jong Un’s trust and favor. He turned over the Air Force to a successor by December of 2014 to assume a senior Party position.
Based on his duties in the following years, outside media and analysts concluded that his new title of first vice director meant he had become number two within the Munitions Industry Department (MID), the organization responsible for North Korea’s ballistic missile development. Michael Madden, of 38 North’s affiliate North Korea Leadership Watch, and retired United States Forces Korea Strategy Chief Robert Collins have also suggested that he gained a concurrent vice directorship in the Party Organization and Guidance Department (OGD)—a very influential, if shadowy, position in the Party which would help further explain his subsequent rise.
Enthusiastically Embraced by the Supreme Leader, Until Pause in Weapons Testing
Though we may never know exactly what led to Ri’s elevation in 2014, his frequent and close interactions with Kim Jong Un are probably no coincidence. If Western media reports are to be believed that Ri is the grandfather or grand-uncle of Kim’s wife Ri Sol Ju, Kim and Ri became relations by marriage in 2009. Ri’s membership in the CMC also meant that Kim would have overseen him there beginning in 2010.
Ri rocketed to an even higher level of prominence in state media during his notably warm personal interactions with Kim as weapons testing accelerated from 2015 to 2017. Ri seemed to be getting some of the credit from Kim Jong Un for these tests. Korean Central Television (KCTV) and showed Kim enthusiastically hugging Ri after at least one such launch in 2016, for instance, and they were shown whispering to each other during a celebration following North Korea’s first ICBM test in July 2017.
However, once Kim shifted to diplomatic engagement rather than weapons testing at the end of 2017, Ri seemed to virtually disappear—with only enough appearances in 2018 to prove he had not been purged. He was overshadowed by others like Kim Yong Chol and Kim Yo Jong, who were at the forefront of diplomatic efforts with South Korea and the US.
Ri Rises to Forefront by 2020
Just weeks after Kim failed to secure a deal at the summit in Hanoi, Ri began to regain visibility in North Korean media as missile launches resumed in May 2019. Ri’s prominence and proximity to Kim in state media grew over the following months, and he even appeared to be the senior official presiding in Kim’s absence over the October 2019 test of the new Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
In 2020, Ri’s status has been on the rise again. On January 1, a Party Central Committee meeting readout reported that Kim Jong Un had declared North Korea was no longer bound by commitments to limit its weapons testing, ordered strategic weapons development to push forward, and warned that the world would soon witness a new North Korean strategic weapon. The same readout announced three major promotions for Ri, elevating his authority and status to deliver on these statements. Ri was named a member of the Politburo and vice chairman of the Central Committee, and was promoted to department head—presumably moving him up to the top position in the MID.
By the end of March, Ri had been entrusted to oversee a launch and give guidance afterward, playing a role in the launch, according to state media accounts, normally reserved for Kim himself. Ri was named to the State Affairs Commission weeks later, officially placing him on the new highest ruling body of North Korea. In May, he was named vice chairman of the CMC. All this set the stage for his July 2020 appearances as “number five” at Kumsusan, and at Kim’s right hand in the CMC meetings.
Overseeing a New Strategic Weapon?
It is very unlikely that Kim re-created the role of the CMC vice chairman, and appointed an official with extensive experience overseeing the development, testing and fielding of new strategic weapons, without a plan in mind. Since January, the Kim regime has been publicly signaling its intention to not only continue producing existing strategic weapons systems, but to unveil and test new ones; the rise of Ri Pyong Chol at the same time reinforces that this is more than mere rhetoric. If “personnel are policy” in Pyongyang, then Ri’s latest promotions indicate the regime’s policy is to push forward with the production, development and testing of strategic weapons. If Kim makes the decision to deliver on his warning by unveiling a new strategic weapon, Ri is likely to be responsible for preparing and directing the operation, whether this is through a parade, a realistic test launch or something in between.
“Chairman Kim Jong Un presides over enlarged meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” Pyongyang Times, July 19, 2020.
“Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Enlarged Meeting of WPK Central Military Commission,” KCNA, May 24, 2020.
See “DPRK Delegation Leaves for China,” KCNA, April 23, 2008; and “KPA Air Force Delegation Leaves for Cuba,” KCNA, November 15, 2008.
See “Kim Jong Il Issues Order on Raising Military Ranks,” KCNA, April 14, 2010; “Central Military Commission Organized,” KCNA, September 28, 2010; and “Members and Alternate Members of WPK Central Committee,” KCNA, September 28, 2010.
“Kim Jong Un Inspects KPA Air Force Unit 1017,” KCNA, January 30, 2012.
“2nd Session of 13th Supreme People’s Assembly of DPRK Held,” KCNA, September 25, 2014.
“Kim Jong Un Inspects KPA Air and Anti-Air Force Unit,” KCNA, December 8, 2014.
“Supreme Commander inspects headquarters of KPA Air and Anti-aircraft Force,” Pyongyang Times, January 13, 2015.
See “Ri Pyong Chol,” Michael Madden and North Korea Leadership Watch, http://www.nkleadershipwatch.org/general-ri-pyong-chol/; and Robert Collins, North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial (Washington, DC: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019), page 159, https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Collins_OGD_Web.pdf.
“Report on 5th Plenary Meeting of 7th C.C., WPK,” Rodong Sinmun, January 1, 2020.
“Test-Fire of Super-large Multiple Rocket Launchers Conducted in DPRK,” Rodong Sinmun, March 30, 2020.
“New Members of SAC, Cabinet at 3rd Session of 14th SPA,” KCNA, April 13, 2020.