Life Beyond Kim: Meet Rocket Man's Own Rocket Man

A resident of Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, takes an evening selfie in Kim Il Sung Square.
SourceCarl De Keyzer/Magnum

Life Beyond Kim: Meet Rocket Man's Own Rocket Man

By Daniel Malloy


Because this is Kim’s leverage with America.

By Daniel Malloy

This OZY Encore was first published in 2018.

In the closed-off Communist dictatorship of North Korea, life revolves around one man: Kim Jong Un. But with a possible high-stakes summit looming between the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom and the United States, OZY is taking a look at the key figures around the third-generation autocrat. This is Life Beyond Kim.

The moment sent a jolt of fear around the world, and for this Kim Jong Un was grateful. As the intercontinental ballistic missile sailed off into the sky in a burst of flame and smoke, the supreme leader turned to hug the man who helped make it all possible. Ri Pyong Chol, who has served in the upper echelons of North Korea’s military for decades, now finds himself at the helm of Kim’s prized possession — the nuclear weapons program.

The ruddy-faced Ri, believed to be about 70, has long been identified with North Korea’s flying objects. He first appeared on the international radar in 1992 as an official with the air force. Three years later, shortly after Kim Jong Il began his reign as supreme leader, Ri became the head of the Pyongyang Air Command. It’s not a small posting: He had dominion over the capital’s airspace — a huge national defense priority given Pyongyang’s siege mentality, which got ratcheted up during the leadership transition.

Ri has long been at the center of that technological push on weapons of war, including the regime’s drone program.

By 2008, Ri was named commander of the air force, and occasionally popped up on state television and in photos standing near Kim Jong Il. He led a North Korean delegation to Cuba and accompanied Kim Jong Il to Russia, likely in search of modern fighter aircraft. When the son took over, Ri remained well placed at the leader’s side when young Kim inspected his country’s high-flying assets, as he often does.

As with all things North Korea, it’s hard to figure out exactly how Ri maintained his standing, as Kim Jong Un reportedly had 340 people purged or executed to consolidate power during his first half decade in control. It could be blood. Michael Madden, an expert on the regime and publisher of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, says Ri is purportedly the grandfather or great uncle of Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju. It’s why you see Ri Sol Ju at air force events, and why Kim appears to be so chummy with Ri Pyong Chol.

Gettyimages 840660070

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) watching the launch of an intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang on Aug. 29, 2017.

Source STR/AFP/Getty

But Ken Gause, of CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and author of North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-un, cautions that we can’t be sure of the family connection. Rather, the real key to Ri’s staying power, he suspects, is that Kim Jong Un — ever eager for a fighter jet cockpit photo op — has an affinity for technology. “I can see how this guy probably ingratiated himself with Kim,” Gause says. Ri’s toys, he adds, help Kim appear like “a modern … tech-savvy leader.”

And Ri has long been at the center of that technological push on weapons of war, including the regime’s drone program, which fell under Ri’s air force purview. North Korea acquired its first unmanned aerial vehicles from China somewhere between 1988 and 1990 but was developing its own technology and had about 300 drones by 2016, according to a report by North Korea analyst Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. The drone force, “while relatively unsophisticated at present, has now reached the point where it could present a security challenge” on the Korean peninsula, Bermudez wrote.

In 2014 Ri dropped out of public view for a while — sparking false reports that he had been purged — but in fact he’d been elected to the National Defense Commission, a now-defunct organization that was, until 2015, the highest branch of government and the country’s supreme policymaking entity. It is believed that Ri now oversees the country’s weapons systems, including the nuclear program. Madden calls him the program’s “fusion center,” interacting with both scientists and military commanders.

North Korea substantially accelerated its missile testing starting in 2014, according to a database of missile tests compiled by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. And Ri’s crew does not have an unblemished record by any stretch. The database records 10 failed tests in 2016 and five failures last year. A failed missile launch in April 2017 hit the North Korean city of Tokchon, damaging several buildings, according to the Diplomat website, citing U.S. intelligence. An underground nuclear test last year triggered a tunnel collapse at one northern site, killing 200 people, reported a Japanese TV station.

Major mishaps aside, the advances are marked and undeniable: North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with enough range to hit the American mainland. It has nuclear weapons, though it’s unclear whether North Korea can miniaturize a warhead to attach to a missile. This destructive power is the leverage Kim Jong Un brings to the table if he meets with President Donald Trump in the coming weeks. At least in part, he has Ri Pyong Chol to thank.