South Korean intelligence officials said the General Political Bureau was being audited for “impure attitude” and that the move was spearheaded by Choe Ryong-hae, a top official of the ruling Workers’ Party who gained more influence during a party meeting in early October. Intelligence officials in the South now believe that Mr. Choe is the head of the Department of Organization and Guidance, the party’s most powerful agency, which Mr. Kim uses to control the country’s political and military elite.
Mr. Choe and Vice Marshal Hwang have survived a series of often bloody purges that Mr. Kim has engineered to consolidate his authority since taking over the dynastic regime after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. They have emerged as Mr. Kim’s two closest allies.
But in the past few years, Vice Marshal Hwang has appeared closer to Mr. Kim than Mr. Choe, his name coming ahead of Mr. Choe’s in leadership rosters, a key indicator of the fortunes of various officials within the regime. Mr. Choe also suffered a setback in 2014, when Vice Marshal Hwang replaced him as head of the General Political Bureau.
In recent months, however, North Korea observers have begun noticing a shift.
When North Korean state media announced a recent leadership roster in October, Vice Marshal Hwang’s name had fallen behind those of Mr. Choe and Premier Pak Pong-ju, who is in charge of the economy.
Like Mr. Pak, Mr. Choe was considered more of a pragmatic administrator than Vice Marshal Hwang, who has accompanied Mr. Kim far more frequently than Mr. Choe when the top leader inspected a recent series weapons tests.
The rise of Mr. Choe and Mr. Pak “reflects North Korea’s intention to focus on the economy and how to overcome international sanctions, now that it has succeeded in testing a hydrogen bomb,” Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank, wrote in a recent analysis. North Korea claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear device in a nuclear test on Sept. 3.
North Korea has not conducted any missile tests since Sept. 15, raising cautious hopes in the region that it might be moving to ease tensions and open talks with Washington.
One factor in the recent disciplinary action, an analyst said, is that Mr. Kim often pits his top lieutenants against one another to keep them in check and ensure their loyalty. Mr. Choe’s rise at the expense of Vice Marshal Hwang was also seen as reflecting Mr. Kim’s attempt to use the party to curb the influence of the military, which had eclipsed the party in influence under his father’s rule.
Mr. Kim never tolerates any of his top aides accumulating enough power to challenge him. In 2013, he executed Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, who had been widely considered the No. 2 in his regime, for plotting to unseat him.
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