North Korea’s top three military officials have been removed from their posts, a move analysts say could support efforts by Kim Jong-un to jump-start economic development and engage with the world.
Kim is preparing for a high-stakes summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, the first such meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president.
A senior US official commented on a report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that all three of the North’s top military officials were believed to have been replaced.
Kim’s motivation remains unclear but analysts say the shake-up allows him and the ruling party to tighten control over the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at a critical time of international engagement and domestic development.
The US is seeking a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and US officials believe there was some dissension in the military about Kim’s approaches to South Korea and the US.
Citing an unidentified intelligence official, Yonhap said No Kwang Chol, first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, had replaced Pak Yong Sik as defence chief, while Ri Myong Su was replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong Gil.
North Korean state media previously confirmed that Army General Kim Su-gil had replaced Kim Jong Gak as director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau.
South Korea’s unification and defence ministries declined to confirm the report, while the Unification Ministry said the government was watching the North’s leadership situation very closely.
Given the military’s secondary role in the country’s nuclear and missile programs, the moves are likely more about installing a younger, even more trusted cohort of officials who Kim Jong-un can rely on as he confronts a variety of domestic and international issues, said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.
The moves are likely linked in part to Kim Jong-un’s drive to have the military take a bigger role in critical infrastructure projects.
Kim Jong-un is also likely expecting to receive more international economic aid and investment soon as part of the ongoing talks and he wants to prevent corruption that plagued some past projects, Madden said.
All of the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, according to Yonhap, especially 63-year-old Ri Yong Gil, who is 21 years younger than Ri Myong Su.
All three of the new officials have at least some experience interacting with foreign delegations, a factor that is critical as Kim seeks to line up meetings with leaders from the US, China, Russia, and Syria.