North Korea’s state media published photos on Friday of Vice Marshall Choe Ryong-hae, quashing intense speculation that the man seen as the number two to paramount leader Kim Jong-un had been purged.
The photo showing Choe accompanying Kim on an inspection of an air force unit on Thursday ran on the front page of the ruling Workers’ Party official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun.
It was Choe’s first public appearance since February 16 – an unusually long absence for such a senior figure and one which triggered numerous reports that he had been purged.
Speculation about changes in the top leadership in Pyongyang has intensified following the execution in December of Kim’s uncle and political mentor, Jang Song-thaek.
Like Choe now, Jang had been seen as the unofficial number two in the hierarchy when he fell from grace.
Reports that Choe had been purged first surfaced in the South Korean media, which cited sources as saying he had been arrested and detained by the North’s Military Security Command (MSC).
“This underscores the risks involved in putting out news stories based on wild rumours which are fed by unidentified sources located far away from Pyongyang,” Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute in Seoul said on Friday after Choe’s photo was published.
But the closely followed website NK Leadership Watch, noted that Choe’s reappearance did not necessarily mean the reports of his arrest by the MSC were completely erroneous.
“In the past, senior cadres have been held by the security services for interrogation – intended to serve as a warning to the cadre and his cohort – then eventually returned to their former positions,” it said.
The fact that Choe was not seen at a number of key events in the past three weeks, could suggest he has lost his place in Kim’s inner circle.