Choe Ryong Hae is a man of many titles. In North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party he’s vice-chairman for organization, director of the Organization and Guidance Department, and a member of the Political Bureau Presidium (standing committee), the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission.
This month the 69-year-old veteran apparatchik picked up two more titles in the government, when he was promoted to first vice-chairman of the State Affairs Commission and took over from 91-year-old Kim Yong Nam a job – president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly – that carries with it the status of No 2 in the country and nominal head of state.
On a side note, the number of countrymen who would know the nickname he bore in his youth – or, now that he appears to have achieved the closest thing to real power that anyone other than the ruler can acquire in North Korea, who would dare to address Choe by that nickname – is somewhere between zero and a handful.
But more about the nickname later. What we really need to know about Choe at this point is that he’s probably the country’s top domestic political fixer – the Karl Rove-like mastermind whose skills smoothed the way for founding ruler Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il, followed by grandson Kim Jong Un, to succeed to power.
Choe’s career has been one of ups and downs, frequently requiring analysts to scramble to guess what it all means. Aside from family heritage – his father worked right under Kim Il Sung – why has Choe been permitted to fly so high? What is the essence of the work Kim Jong Un expects him to do?
Looking back on his career, we see that for a couple of decades Choe was an official in the country’s socialist youth league and the sports programs, making sure young people were filled with Kimilsungist spirit. In the course of his youth work he became known as someone whose organizational skills helped pave the way to popular acceptance of Kim Jong Il’s succession.
It was at the youth league that he suffered a major comedown: Accused of corruption in 1997, he lost his job – one of the more fortunate targets of a purge that cost seven of his youth league colleagues their lives.
Fully rehabilitated by 2006, Choe from 2009 began work on smoothing the coming succession of Kim Jong Un.
Why would those skills be needed again now? After all, with seven years in the top job under his belt, Kim Jong Un might seem to have passed the initial barriers to finding acceptance at home.
Nothing is permanent, though. These days, international and bilateral economic sanctions are eroding Kim’s support by reducing living standards of the elite military and civilian officials he relies on to preserve the regime.
Foreigners often say that Kim’s chief focus should be improving the economy, so that his people wouldn’t continue to go hungry. He clearly doesn’t agree. Even what may have seemed his top focus lately – on nuclear diplomacy with the United States and South Korea – is not his first priority. Surviving to stay in power – that’s number one.
When Kim feels his position at home threatened, Choe is someone he turns to. In this regard, Choe’s newest titles may not be the most important. Some analysts would argue that the big line on his calling card is his position at the party’s Organization and Guidance Department. There he’s in charge of key personnel decisions.
It’s up to Choe to see that any otherwise up-and-coming cadres who notice that the country is going to hell in a hand basket and start to think about pursuing divergent goals don’t get juicy promotions that would abet regime-change efforts.
Oh, and about the nickname that Choe was given in his youth, the story goes like this. The lad was several years younger than Kim Jong Il and lived in the same elite Pyongyang neighborhood. Kim Jong Il, the unofficial crown prince and a university student fond of partying, noticed that Choe, still in high school, was very shy, not yet dating girls. A mutual pal of the two of them told me that Kim teased Choe, saying he must not be a “real male.”
One day when the older boys and their girlfriends were visiting Choe’s house, Kim resumed torturing him. Demanding that the boy take his pants off, he had the other lads tie him up and called upon one of the girls to massage him. When Choe became aroused, Kim said, “Oh, you’re capable. I’m satisfied.”
Ryong Hae was known thenceforth among that group of princelings as Ryong Du, a slang term for masturbation.
Flash forward and “Wanker” Choe grew up to become a trusted crony of the middle Kim and eventually of the youngest Kim – and very fond of women.