State funeral list in North Korea triggers purge speculation

State funeral list in North Korea triggers purge speculation
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at the KPA's (Korean People's Army) 7th military education convention, which was held on November 3 and 4, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 5, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

Seoul - A state funeral in North Korea has sparked another fresh round of purge rumours after one of Kim Jong-Un's most powerful aides was omitted from the official funeral committee list.

Marshal Ri Ul-Sol, who died of lung cancer at the weekend, is to be given a state funeral on November 11, and the list of 107 names published on Sunday -- headed by leader Kim Jong-Un -- is an official Who's Who of the top political and military hierarchy.

A notable absentee, however, is Choe Ryong-Hae, a member of the ruling party's politburo standing committee and seen as one of Kim's closest confidantes.

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.

He was mentioned by state media as recently as October 31, when he made a statement about a ruling party congress to be held next year.

Rumours of political purges and executions regularly swirl around the isolated North -- only to be rebutted when the official or officials in question resurface with their posts secure.

But Kim Jong-Un has been ruthless in eliminating even the highest-ranking officials whose loyalty may have been brought into question.

Kim had his powerful uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, executed in December 2012 on charges of treason and corruption.

The Kim dynasty has ruled the impoverished North for more than six decades with an iron fist and almost no tolerance for dissent.

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