| James Pearson and Jack Kim |
SEOUL (Reuters) – The man in the olive drabs and oversized Soviet-style military cap, who strode through South Korea’s main airport last week, has climbed from an obscure desk job in North Korea to the most powerful position outside the ruling Kim family.
Hwang Pyong So, now a top military aide to the North’s leader Kim Jong Un, has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of North Korea’s leadership in the space of a few years.
With intense speculation on the whereabouts of Kim after his disappearance from official media for over a month, Hwang is even more in focus.
Last week, Hwang was at the head of a delegation that visited South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in the city of Incheon with little advance notice.
He is the senior-most official from the North to have ever come to the South, and opinion is divided on whether this could be a sign of turmoil in Pyongyang.
Hwang, who is 64 or 65, was in the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), a powerful and secretive body that finalises appointments within North Korea’s leadership, and rose to be its second-in-command, according to North Korea experts and South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
At the time, the OGD was headed by Kim Jong II, the father of the current leader.
Hwang was associated with Kim Jong Un in the late 2000’s when the young man was first named in state media reports announcing his party and military credentials.
When Kim Jong Un took power after his father’s death in 2011, Hwang was among his coterie of advisers.
As others fell by the wayside, Hwang became chief of the General Political Bureau of the army, a powerful position that mobilises the military for the leader, earlier this year.
Last month, he also became vice chairman of the National Defence Commission, considered one of the most important posts in North Korea. Kim Jong Un is chairman.
Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector who previously worked at a propaganda unit in the North’s ruling party, said it was unusual for an OGD veteran to rise to such a prominent position.
“These are the people who come to the forefront only when there is a purge or an execution,” said Jang.
Pyongyang’s military leadership has been in a state of perpetual reshuffle since Kim Jong Un took power.
Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was once seen as the No 2 in Pyongyang, was purged and executed late last year.
Jang’s replacement, Choe Ryong Hae, has been demoted several times since then. Now head of the state sports commission, a role Jang also held before being executed, Choe accompanied Hwang on the visit to South Korea.
Choe fell from grace when Kim Jong Un learned the 65-year-old had stashed millions of dollars in a secret Chinese bank account, the respected Seoul-based Daily NK website reported in July.
Despite little military experience Hwang wears a rank equivalent to four-star general – not unusual in a top-heavy military leadership where party cadres often rotate in and out of uniform.
Known as a close confidant of the young dictator, Hwang had few official dealings with people outside the reclusive North before leading the delegation to South Korea on Saturday.
He arrived on a VIP plane bearing the emblem of the North Korean state, flanked by suited bodyguards wearing sunglasses and earpieces.
During his twelve-hour trip, Hwang smiled often, watched fireworks and Korean pop music at the closing ceremony, and at times spoke in a way that made it impossible to ascertain what he was saying, official transcripts show.
Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership, said people who have met Hwang described him as lacking arrogance, favouring consensus and “very pleasant to interact with.”
He cuts a more formidable figure at home.
At a military rally in Pyongyang in July, Hwang told troops to prepare for nuclear armageddon against America.
“If the US undermines our sovereignty and right to exist with its nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers, our army will launch a nuclear-armed rocket at the White House and major US bases in and around the Pacific,” Hwang said.
Hwang first emerged in state media reports ten years ago as greeting leader Kim Jong II with “stormy cheers” at a concert.