Omission of aide of Kim Jong Un in namelist for North Korea state funeral triggers purge rumours

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looking at the body of North Korean army marshal Ri Ul Sol in Pyongyang on Nov 8, 2015.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looking at the body of North Korean army marshal Ri Ul Sol in Pyongyang on Nov 8, 2015. PHOTO: EPA/YONHAP/RODONG SINMUN

SEOUL (AFP) - A state funeral in North Korea has sparked another fresh round of purge rumours after one of Mr 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 Nov 11, and the list of 107 names published on Sunday (Nov 8) - headed by leader Kim Jong Un - is an official Who's Who of the top political and military hierarchy.

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

Even if unwell, Mr 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 Mr 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," Mr Cheong said.

Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles North Korea affairs, also noted the omission in a regular press briefing on Monday (Nov 9).

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

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

Mr 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 World War II victory anniversary parade.

He was mentioned by state media as recently as Oct 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 Mr Kim Jong Un has been ruthless in eliminating even the highest-ranking officials whose loyalty may have been brought into question.

Mr 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.