North Korea reportedly removed three top military officials from their posts just eight days ahead of the summit meeting between dictator Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Analysts see the shakeup as an effort to demonstrate Kim’s mastery over hardline elements in his military and send a positive signal to the United States.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap News, the entire military high command has effectively been replaced:
No Kwang-chol, first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replaced Pak Yong-sik as defense chief, while Ri Myong-su, chief of the KPA’s general staff, was replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong-gil, according to the source.
These changes are in addition to Army Gen. Kim Su-gil’s replacement of Kim Jong-gak as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. The replacement was confirmed in a North Korean state media report last month.
Earlier in the day, a Japanese newspaper carried a similar report.
“The North appears to have brought in new figures amid the changes in inter-Korean relations and the situation on the Korean Peninsula as the previous officials lacked flexibility in thinking,” the source said. “In particular, No Kwang-chol has been classified as a moderate person.”
Another intelligence source speculated to Yonhap that North Korea is swapping out older officers for younger models, signaling a generational shift away from senior officials who might have difficulty reconciling themselves to denuclearization and greater openness to South Korea and the West.
Reuters notes that all three of the new top leaders are absolutely loyal to Kim Jong-un and “flexible enough to accept the massive changes that may come from any deal with U.S. President Donald Trump.”
The North Korean dictatorship has a long history of retiring senior officers and rotating in fresh blood to keep the military high command from growing too powerful. Unfortunately for the senior officers, North Korea’s military retirement plan leaves much to be desired. Kim Su-gil, the new director of the army’s General Political Bureau, was involved in planning the lively retirement party for Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek (1946-2013).
The Yonhap report did not address the current health and happiness levels of the three top leaders who were displaced. It is also not certain if any or all of the new leaders will accompany Kim Jong-un to Singapore for his meeting with Trump.
Analyst Michael Madden of 38 North added two more points to the resumes of the new top North Korean military leaders: they are more comfortable dealing with foreigners than the older men they replaced, and they are better equipped to handle the military taking over civilian construction projects, which is likely to be one result of a successful Trump-Kim summit.
Professor Kim Yong-hyun of Seoul’s Dongguk University told the Washington Post that North Korea appears to be “pursuing a new policy to become a developing country without nuclear weapons, rather than a poor country with nuclear weapons.”
“Kim Jong-un has chosen a new leadership who reflects his new approach and can more naturally propagate his new policies to bring stability within the military,” said Kim Yong-hyun, who seemed optimistic that these are more than merely symbolic or deceptive changes.