N.Korean Eminence Grise Dead in Mysterious Circumstances

      June 04, 2010 08:52

      Ri Je-gang

      A powerful North Korean official has suddenly died in mysterious circumstances. North Korea on Wednesday evening announced the death in a car accident of Ri Je-gang (80), the first deputy director of the Workers Party's Organization and Guidance Department.

      Ri worked at the powerful department directly supervised by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for 37 years. He was apparently deeply involved in establishing the succession for Kim's son Jong-un. Kim Jong-un's mother, the late Ko Yong-hee, reportedly asked him to make sure that one of her sons, Jong-chol or Jong-un, succeeds their father. Ko died in 2004.

      Senior positions in the party, the government, and the military were more or less in Ri's gift.

      Experts say there is something fishy about the sudden death of this eminence grise. It is possible that Ri was killed while driving his own car drunk after participating in one of Kim Jong-il’s secret parties, which happened to Kim Yong-sun, a party secretary in charge of South Korean affairs, in 2003 at the age of 69. But chances are slim that the octogenarian Ri drove himself.

      But experts say the timing of his death is peculiar, coming as it did hard on the heels of the dismissal on May 14 of Kim Il-chol, the minister of the people's armed forces, for reasons of old age, also at the age of 80. Ri Yong-chol (81), another senior deputy director of the Organization and Guidance Department who had supported Ko Young-hee alongside Ri Je-gang, died of a reported heart attack in April.

      A North Korean source said, "In the 1970s, Kim Chang-bong, the then minister of national defense, died in a car accident after he opposed Kim Jong-il's succession to power. We suspect that Ri's death was also related to an internal power struggle, although there is no evidence yet to support the speculation."

      Ri had apparently been on bad terms with his rival Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law and administration director of the North Korean Workers Party, after he tried to purge Jang in 2004.

      The deaths of elderly senior officials have been coming thick and fast of late. Kim Jung-rin (87), a party secretary, and Ri Jong-bu, an artillery commander, also died recently.

      A South Korean security official said, "It's possible that there'll be a massive restructuring in the North." Pyongyang has already announced an extraordinary session of the Supreme People's Assembly on June 7.

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