Defense Minister, GPB Boss Missing from Funeral Committee

Ri Yong Gil (L) and Kwon Yong Jin (2nd R) during the 25 April 2022 parade marking the 90th anniversary of the KPRA (Photo: KCNA).

The DPRK’s Minister of National Defense [MND], VMar Ri Yong Gil (Ri Yo’ng-kil), and the Director of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] General Political Bureau [GPB], Gen. Kwon Yong Chin (Kwon Yo’ng-chi) do not appear on the state funeral committee organized for retired senior KPA official Marshal Hyon Chol Hae (Hyo’n Ch’o’l-hae).  Ri and Kwon are two of the three members of the KPA high command.  Chief of the KPA General Staff Department [GSD] Gen. Rim Kwang Il (Rim Kwang-il) is ranked #15 on the funeral committee.

The first 20-30 names listed, or called out, in state media as members of a state funeral committee are members or alternate (candidate) members of the WPK Political Bureau.  The Hyon Chol Hae Funeral Committee disseminated on 20 May (Friday ) indicates that Ri Yong Gil and Kwon Yong Jin currently do not have Political Bureau status.  Neither Ri nor Kwon are listed any where else on the funeral committee.  This means they have not been reassigned to lower profile positions.

Neither Ri Yong Gil nor Kwon Yong Jin were observed in attendance at any of the Political Bureau gatherings held to manage North Korea’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  Ri Yong Gil did not attend a 16 May (Monday) rally of KPA physicians and medical personnel tasked to deliver pharmaceuticals, but his nominal principal deputy, 1st Vice Minister of National Defense Col. Gen. Kwon Thae Yong (Kwon T’ae-yo’ng) both attended and spoke at the event.  Ri Yong Gil’s absence from the 8th Political Bureau of the 8th Central Committee on 12 May was particularly notable as state media reported that “some commanding officers of the Ministry of National Defense” attended with observer status.

Ri’s absence at the Political Bureau meeting, and to a lesser extent Kwon’s, could have been tied to direct supervision over the country’s pandemic response.  After all, during the 12 May Political Bureau meeting, the KPA was charged to take the lead in the DPRK’s response to COVID-19.  It could have been reasonably surmised that Ri and Kwon were (literally) off rallying the troops and absolved from attending Political Bureau gatherings.

The absence of two KPA High Command core elites from a funeral committee (for a retired, prominent military leader no less) is unprecedented.  Ri and Kwon may be temporarily suspended from political offices like the Political Bureau until Kim Jong Un and his close aides in the Personal Secretariat are satisfied with the KPA’s contributions to pandemic relief efforts; they might have to earn their stripes, and their jobs, back.  As Pyongyang watchers saw with Ri Pyong Chol’s demotion and temporary removal from the Political Bureau Presidium, it is possible for senior officials of North Korea’s national security community to return to be returned to their previous positions.  On the other hand, if the 25 April parade commemorating the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the KPRA was a “super spreader event” then Ri and Kwon may have accepted responsibility for this or been outright dismissed.

Ri Yong Gil was previously the subject of purge rumors in 2016.  He disappeared from public view between February and May 2016, only to resurface.  At that time, Ri’s assumed fate made international news based on erroneous intelligence reporting.  Ri has had an interesting career during the last two years, holding a senior deputy director (1st vice director) position in the Central Committee apparatus, and holding a short stint as Minister of Social Security (Minister of Public Security) during 2021.  During April 2022, Ri was given the title of Vice Marshal and his MND position assumed precedence over GPB and GSD in the high command’s triumvirate.

The current status of Ri Yong Gil and Kwon Yong Jin may have been the reason why a funeral committee was not formed for last week’s death of Yang Hyong Sop.  Their personnel status may not have been finalized or something Pyongyang was not in a position to publicize.

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