By Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - The man who has most to gain from the apparent decline of Jang Song Thaek, the second-most powerful figure in North Korea, is a party apparatchik who has been around the ruling Kim dynasty for decades but kept out of the limelight until three years ago.
Choe Ryong Hae now appears to be the most influential adviser to Kim Jong Un, the mercurial 30-year-old who heads the secretive nuclear-armed nation. That had been Jang's role, but South Korea's spy agency said on Tuesday that he had been removed from his official posts.
That fate could soon befall Choe as well, as Kim surrounds himself with more aides of his generation, according to analysts and defectors from the regime, often the only source of information for palace intrigue in Pyongyang.
But for now the 63-year-old is the influential political head of the military, largely because of the links forged by his father, who fought Japanese occupying forces alongside North Korea's founder-leader, Kim Il Sung.
Choe's family lived in the 'Forbidden City', the elite Pyongyang enclave that houses the top leadership, and he grew up with Kim Jong Il, who would later be the second of the Kim dynasty to rule the state.
"Choe's father was a former partisan who fought against colonial Japan together with Kim Il Sung," said Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector who previously worked at the United Front Department, a propaganda unit in the North's ruling party.
"So his bloodline is special. That's why the military couldn't oppose Choe's nomination as the army's director of the general political bureau."
There has been no confirmation or denial of the reports of Jang's eclipse - North Korea reveals few details of its leadership other than public adulation of the Kims. But experts who analyze North Korean media reports and official photographs for clues on the state's power structure say mentions of Jang have declined over several months, coinciding with an increase in references to Choe.
On the surface, Choe is a commanding presence in the North's political hierarchy, clearly the highest ranking official in the country following Kim Jong Un among those who still have an active public profile.
But until 2010, shortly before Kim Jong Il died, he occupied a variety of less important party roles. He was embroiled in a corruption scandal in the 1990s but clawed his way back to favor.
Shortly before his death in December 2010, Kim Jong Il made Choe a general and gave him several senior party posts.
Kim Jong Un has given him more clout. Now, in addition to the public title as the chief political operative for the North's 1.2-million-strong army, Choe holds a seat in the powerful standing committee of the ruling Workers' Party politburo shared only by Kim himself and two figurehead old guard members.
Choe is also one of the two vice chairmen of the ruling Workers' Party central military commission, a post that encompasses two of the most powerful institutions, the party and the military. He was made a vice marshal of the military this year.
In June, Choe was Kim's special envoy to meet President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea's only major ally. The meeting followed displeasure expressed by Beijing after North Korea launched a missile last year and conducted a third nuclear test in February.
A "YES MAN"
Riding on his acquaintance with the ruling family, Choe was put in to lead the elite Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League in the 1990s, said Pak Sang-hak, who as a youth belonged to the group before defecting to the South in 2000.
"Then, in 1997, he was mired in a huge corruption scandal and was thrown out of the job, and that was the start of almost 10 years of very harsh hardship for him," Pak said.
It was Jang who made his rehabilitation possible in 2007 by helping him return to the ruling party bureaucracy first as the secretary for a remote country region, a post he used to make a comeback to center stage.
"After that, Choe turned into a total 'yes man'," Pak said.
But it's questionable how long Choe will continue to have influence, analysts say. Kim seems to be more comfortable with friends and admirers of his own age, and not hangovers from his father's generation.
"If you have a regent and a young, ambitious king, it's dangerous to be a regent," said Andrei Lankov who has extensively studied the North's power elite at the Kookmin University in Seoul.
"Kim's natural tendency will be just like any monarch or young king - he will sooner or later try to get rid of his regents because he believes that he is great, successful, smart and knows everything better than this grumpy old man."
Jang however was believed to be ambitious, and Choe is not.
"Choe's winning streak will continue for some time, but who knows how long," said Cho Min, at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-run think tank.
"The question is why would Kim Jong Un want to remove Jang Song Thaek at this point and what role did Choe play in it. One thing is Choe didn't come across as a threat but Jang did."
Pak, the defector, does not join the popular view that Jang was defeated in a power struggle with Choe, saying that is an opinion borne out of ignorance about Choe's past and his long friendship with Jang and the ruling family.
"Choe is also not a bona fide military man. If anything, he is a political supervisor whose job is to keep an eye on all the officers in the military," Pak said.
But if Jang and Choe shared one thing in common, it was the derision they drew from the military's rank and file in private, according to some defectors.
They liked to "walk around in military uniforms they had no business being in", said one.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and James Pearson; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)