This isn’t the first purge rumor about Choe Ryong-Hae

Choe Ryong-Hae’s omission from Marshal Ri Ul-Sol’s funeral committee has South Korean experts and officials speculating that Choe, thought by some to be North Korea’s third-ranking official, may have become the latest of many North Korean officials to be purged by Kim Jong-Un:

Even if unwell, Choe would normally be on the list and experts said the omission of someone of his stature could not be put down to oversight.

“It’s almost impossible that this happened unless Choe … was removed from key positions,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.

“I suspect that Choe might have been involved in serious trouble such as a major corruption scandal or defamation,” Cheong said.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea affairs, also noted the omission in a regular press briefing on Monday.

“We certainly view it as unusual given past precedent,” said ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-Hee.

Choe was also absent when Kim paid tribute at Ri’s wake Sunday along with several senior military cadres, according to footage from North Korean state TV.

Choe was seen as Kim Jong-Un’s most trusted envoy, and was chosen to take a personal message to Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

And he visited Beijing again very recently, in September, as North Korea’s representative at China’s giant WWII victory anniversary parade. [AFP]

At the outset, it’s worth asking whether Choe was ever ranked as highly as is often assumed. On this point, Jang Jin-Sung takes the view that he wasn’t, and I take Jang’s views on such matters seriously.

Even by North Korean standards, Choe’s status has been difficult to follow. In September 2014, North Korean state media announced that Choe has been “recalled … from the post of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC) of the DPRK due to his transfer to other post.” Sounds ominous, right? A month later, Choe and Hwang Pyong-So were dispatched to Seoul for high-level talks, which seemed to confirm Choe’s high status and level of trust within the regime.

Don’t pity Choe, who has undoubtedly climbed over plenty of skulls to reach his position. Save your pity for poor Ken Gause, who had just released a book on North Korean kremlinology, and who may well have enough material for a second edition by December.