North Korea's second-highest apparatchik, the hardline military politburo chief Choe Ryong-hae, has stoked the ever-active rumor mill by disappearing from the radar again.
Instead, observers believe that Hwang Pyong-so, a senior Workers Party official who led the purge against former eminence grise Jang Song-taek, is rising inexorably through the ranks.
North Korea watchers are already sensing subtle changes in the North's military.
◆ Central Military Commission
The [North] Korean Central News Agency on Sunday reported on a meeting of the party's Central Military Commission chaired by leader Kim Jong-un. The commission is said to be the top decision-making body for the military.
The last meeting was held on April 17, and it is rare for two to come in quick succession. KCNA said "organizational issues" were dealt with at the latest meeting.
KCNA said cryptically that Kim stressed "political affairs" within the military during the meeting. That sounds like a veiled reference to loyalty to him, and Choe is the official in charge of the matter. But Choe has not been seen since April 11, when he was photographed with members of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.
He was not present at a rally for fighter pilots in Pyongyang on April 15 nor the 82nd anniversary ceremony of the Army on Friday. It was highly unusual for him to be absent from such a ceremony since he is one of the top military officers.
It is unclear whether he is sick or has been sacked. There is a chance that Choe, who is in his 70s and suffers from diabetes, was ordered by Kim to take time off to regain his health. Choe was spotted early this year limping as he walked behind Kim during on-site inspections.
But it is equally possible that Kim purged Choe due to his rising power following Jang's execution. Dennis Halpin at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the foreign-policy bimonthly The National Interest pointed out that Choe's father, Choe Hyon, rather than nation found Kim Il-sung, spearheaded North Korea's independence movements against imperial Japan.
That historical fact could prompt Kim to purge Choe sooner or later, Halpin added.
Kim toured an army unit on Saturday and watched an artillery drill, only to lambaste soldiers for being "ill prepared to fight" and blaming the unit's politburo officer, according to KCNA. It is Choe's responsibility to watch over the politburo officials assigned to military units.
◆ Rising Star
If Choe has been sacked, the official most likely to succeed him is Hwang, who was promoted to general on April 15. Reporting Kim's visit to a long-range artillery unit on Sunday, KCNA mentioned Hwang ahead of Army Chief Ri Yong-gil. Until now, Choe had been the only official whose name preceded Ri in these strictly hierarchical reports.
Chung Sung-jang of the Sejong Institute said, "Judging by the order in which the names were mentioned, Hwang has either replaced Choe as military politburo chief or is playing that role temporarily."
But a source advised against jumping to conclusions. "Choe Ryong-hae has been known to disappear from time to time from the radar in the past, so we need to monitor things further," the source said. "We’re trying to confirm speculation that Choe was sacked."
Although Hwang spearheaded Jang's execution in December last year and apparently emerged as a new confidant of the North Korean leader, his background and even his age are shrouded in mystery.