Hwang Pyong-so, the rising star of the North Korean regime who came out of nowhere, has been given the rank of vice marshal, the [North] Korean Central News Agency reported Monday. Hwang was fast-tracked to the senior post only 11 days after it emerged that he had been promoted to a four-star general.
This has fueled speculation that Hwang, about whom intelligence services here know almost nothing, has replaced Choe Ryong-hae military politburo chief to become a new power behind the throne.
A session last Saturday of the Workers Party's Central Military Commission, the top military decision-making body, apparently reshuffled key personnel.
Chung Sung-jang of the Sejong Institute said, "The process by which Hwang has been promoted is reminiscent of Choe's promotion to military politburo chief in April 2012."
At the time, North Korean media read out Choe's name ahead of then Army chief Ri Yong-ho's and confirmed his appointment alongside pictures showing him with a vice marshal’s insignia.
On Sunday, the official Rodong Sinmun daily mentioned Hwang's name ahead of Army chief Ri Yong-gil.
There is speculation that Hwang took the lead in the efforts to make Kim Jong-un the successor to his father with the backing of Kim's mother Ko Yong-hui. He was at the time a section chief at the party’s Organization and Guidance Department.
But Choe's fate remains unclear. He has not been seen in public for more than 15 days, but nobody knows whether the septuagenarian hardliner is ill or whether he has been purged.
Some media outlets here reported that Choe attended the Central Military Commission last Saturday, but a government official said the pictures are not clear enough to be sure.
Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ui-do would not commit himself, saying only that Seoul, too, is watching the situation with interest.
But Park Hyung-joong of the Korea Institute for National Unification said if Hwang has risen, Choe must have fallen or at least been put on ice.