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Kim Jong Un's Right-Hand Man Resurfaces After Mysterious Absence

In a photograph taken in July, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (from right) stands with Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Song Thaek, Kim's uncle.
Jason Lee
In a photograph taken in July, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (from right) stands with Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Song Thaek, Kim's uncle.

Being North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's deputy can be bad for your health, as the sudden execution last year of the young dictator's No. 2 official has conclusively proven.

So, when Choe Ryong Hae, the senior Pyongyang official assumed to have stepped into the role, did not show up for several public events starting last month, speculation was rife that he'd met a similar fate as his predecessor, Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek.

Jang and Choe had reportedly been hand-picked by Kim Jong Un's father, the late Kim Jong Il, to ease his son's transition to power.

On Tuesday, there were reports that South Korea was investigating the possibility that the 31-year-old Kim Jong Un had ordered Choe's removal. The Week reported:

"There is growing speculation that the regime's second most powerful man, Choe Ryong-hae, has been imprisoned and is undergoing interrogation under orders from the young dictator."

"For the past month, Choe has failed to appear at a string of public events where he would normally be standing close to Kim, reports The Times. It is thought the pair might have clashed over the way Choe was running various state-owned businesses."

But Reuters said on Friday that Choe "has reappeared in official television footage, belying reports he had fallen victim to a fresh purge in the isolated nation."

According to the news agency:

"[Choe] was pictured close to Kim in pictures taken in January and February, smiling but sporting a limp. He was seen enthusiastically taking notes on a visit by Kim to various sites and then appeared at a firing drill on a beach.

"Choe is the influential head of the political wing of North Korea's military and appears to have risen to become the second most powerful person in the country after the execution of [Jang] ... last year."

The North Korean monitoring blog 38 North describes Choe and Jang as rival "co-regents" to Kim. Alexandre Mansourov wrote in January:

"The guardianship system created by Kim Jong Il to ease his son's way to power began to unravel in the wake of the '7.15' purge of the first guardian Ri Yong Ho in July 2012. The '12.12' execution of the second guardian Jang Song Thaek last December detonated its bedrock foundation, and as the signs of the third guardian Choe Ryong Hae's declining influence begin to emerge in 2014, the system is entering the twilight zone."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.