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Inside Kim Jong-un’s Military Shake-Up

by Evan Wexler and Sarah Childress

Shortly before his death, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s Supreme Leader began to clear the road to succession for his son, Kim-Jong-un, by removing officials he deemed a threat. When Kim Jong-un took over in 2012, he continued the purge his father started, consolidating his power. It would become the most extensive crackdown since his grandfather Kim Il-sung, ruled the country, according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Many of the top officials were members of a major party organ, the Central Military Commission.

The North Korean regime is notoriously opaque, making it difficult to fully understand the precise balance of power in the leadership structure. But with help from news reports and North Korea experts, we’ve assembled a roster of commission members to show what’s believed to have changed, from May 2012 as Kim Jong-un assumed control, to the present day.


Before and After a North Korean Purge

Choe Kyong-song

Colonel General

Choe is commander of the Army’s “Storm Force,” which comprises most of the special operations forces. He still appears to be a member of the commission.

Choe Pu-il


Appointed in Sept. 2010, the general is believed to remain on the commission. In 2013, Kim Jong-un appointed Choe as Minister of the People’s Security, putting him in charge of the domestic police force.

Choe Ryong-hae

Vice Chairman

Choe initially shared the vice chairmanship of the commission with Ri Yong-ho. Since Ri was purged, Choe now stands alone behind Kim Jong-un, and is considered one of his top aides. He also holds a top position in the Political Bureau, which is responsible for economic matters.

Choe Sang-ryo

Colonel General

Choe was fired in early 2012 as the head of the Strategic Rocket Force Command and replaced by Kim Rak-gyom.

Hyon Chol-hae

Vice Marshal

A longtime military officer who served under Kim Il-sung and was close to Kim Jong-il, Hyon was appointed to a top post in the commission in April 2012. As of 2013, he no longer appears in official photographs and is believed to have been removed.

Jang Jong-nam

Minister, Defense

The general has served in the North Korean military under all three Kim leaders. He was appointed defense minister in 2013 by Kim Jong-un, making him one of leader’s top military aides.

Jang Song-taek Executed

Vice Chairman, National Defense Commission

When Kim Jong-un first came to power, many observers thought that his uncle, Jang Song-taek, was really the one in charge. Jang had been close to Kim Jong-il, and once he died, served as a mentor for Kim Jong-un. His very public arrest, which was photographed at a party meeting, and subsequent execution in December 2013, was highly unusual for the effusive press release detailing his apparent crimes against the state. Observers believe his removal was possibly a result of internal conflict rather than an attempted coup, but it’s difficult to know for sure.

Jong Myong-do

Commander, Navy

Jong was promoted to general under Kim Jong-il and served as commander of the Navy. He was fired in 2012 by Kim Jong-un, but the reason is unclear.

Ju Kyu-chang


A trained mechanical engineer, Ju leads North Korea’s weapons research and development. He was elected to the military commission in 2010 and became a general under Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-gak

Vice Marshal

A member of the commission since 2010, Kim was appointed vice marshal under Kim Jong-un in April 2012. He was fired later that year and replaced by Kim Kyok Sik, who is believed to have commanded battalions responsible for two deadly attacks on South Koreans in 2010.

Kim Kyok-sik


Appointed by Kim Jong-un as a replacement for Kim Jong-gak, the hardline Kim was removed only months later.

Kim Kyong-ok


Kim rose to prominence in the leadership structure as Kim Jong-il became ill and may have worked to pave the way for Kim Jong-un to succeed his father. Now a general, Kim is believed he has become one of Kim Jong-un’s close aides.

Kim Myong-guk

Chief, Army staff operations

Kim was removed from the commission in 2012, but as of 2013, the man Kim Jong-il once called “my operations bureau director” was still attending public events. He may now be working in internal security.

Kim Rak-gyom

Chief, Strategic Rocket Forces

Appointed a member of the commission in April 2012, Kim is also the head of the government’s Strategic Rocket Forces, which oversees all nuclear weapons and missile facilities.

Kim Won-hong

Minister, State Security

The general joined the commission in Sept. 2010, but now also serves as the minister for State Security, the powerful organization responsible for rooting out internal dissent. Under Kim Jong-il, he led the Military Security Command, which polices military officials and facilities. Today, he’s often seen accompanying the new Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un.

Kim Yong-chol


A longtime member of North Korean intelligence operations, Kim currently leads the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the army unit charged with infiltration and surveillance. He has close ties to the Kim family. In 2012, Kim was promoted to a four-star general by Kim Jong-un.

Kim Yong-chun

Vice Marshal

A vice marshal on the commission, Kim was one of the few top aides chosen to walk beside Kim Jong-il’s hearse during his funeral procession. He has so far survived the purge.

Ri Myong-su

Minister, People’s Security

The general was appointed to the commission in April 2012, but only survived in the position for less than a year before he was removed from his post. It is believed that Ri may have been placed under house arrest following Jang Song-taek’s execution.

Ri Pyong-chol


He’s served as commanding officer of the Air Force since 2008. Ri has so far retained his position under Kim Jong-un.

Ri Yong-gil

General, Army Chief of General Staff

Appointed to replace Kim Kyok-sik, the little-known Ri is now one of the Kim Jong-un’s top military aides.

Ri Yong-ho

Vice Chairman, Central Military Commission

Elected to the commission in Sept. 2010 under Kim Jong-il, Ri had gained significant prominence in the leadership structure, and was considered a mentor to young Kim Jong-un as he prepared to succeed his father. But he was one of the first to be purged by the new regime, in July 2012. It’s unclear what he did to run afoul of the Supreme Leader, but he’s currently believed to be under house arrest.

Yun Jong-rin


A former bodyguard of Kim Jong-il, the general leads North Korea’s Supreme Guard Command, responsible for protecting the Kim family. He remains a member of the commission.

Sources: Michael Madden of NK Leadership Watch; Robert L. Carlin, Visiting Fellow, CISAC, Stanford University; news reports.
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