Kim Su-gil, left of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, is one of the military leaders to be promoted. (Reuters: KCNA)
North Korea’s top three military officials have been removed from their posts, a senior US official said on Sunday, a move analysts say could support efforts by the North’s young leader to jump-start economic development and engage with the world.
- Kim Jong-un replaces North Korea’s top three military leaders on the eve of historic summit with US President Donald Trump
- It has been seen by some analysts as a move to bring in younger, more trusted figures and to consolidate Mr Kim’s power
- The three replacements also have experience interacting with foreign delegations
Kim Jong-un 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.
The US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was commenting 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.
Mr Kim’s motivation remains unclear but analysts said 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.
“If Kim Jong-un is set on making peace with the US and South Korea and dealing away at least part of the nuclear program, he will have to put the KPA’s influence in a box and keep it there,” said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organisation.
“This reshuffle has brought to the fore the officers who can do just that. They are loyal to Kim Jong-un and no one else.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is reportedly tightening his control of the army. (KCNA via Reuters)
Reshuffle ahead of summit
The United States is seeking a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and US officials believe there was some dissension in the military about Mr Kim’s approaches to South Korea and the United States.
Mr Trump wants North Korea to “denuclearise,” or get rid of its nuclear arsenal, in return for relief from economic sanctions. North Korea’s leadership is believed to regard nuclear weapons as crucial to its survival, while Mr Kim has said he plans to focus on economic development.
The US official did not identify the three ousted military officials.
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.
The White House, State Department, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond immediately to requests for official comment.
South Korea’s unification and defence ministries declined to confirm the report, while an official at the Unification Ministry said the government was watching the leadership situation in the North very closely.
Economic factors, party control
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 Mr Kim 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 nuclear weapons are a side issue,” Mr Madden said.
The moves are likely linked in part to Mr Kim’s drive to have the military take a bigger role in critical infrastructure projects. That could explain why newly appointed director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, Army General Kim Su-gil, accompanied Mr Kim on a field guidance trip to a beach tourist zone with other officials, Madden said.
Mr Kim 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, Mr 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.
“This points to two things — the consolidation of Kim Jong-un’s power as the sole leader of North Korea and strengthened cooperation between the North’s party and military as the country works towards further economic development,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“They’re all young but capable people.”
Kim Yong-chol met Donald Trump in the White House, only a week after the summit was cancelled. (Supplied: White House/Shealah Craighead)
Lower-level US-North Korean talks to prepare for the summit are continuing but have made only “halting progress,” according to a second US official briefed on the discussions.
That official said US negotiators’ efforts to press for definitions of immediate, comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation by North Korea had run into opposition from the White House.
In a remarkable shift in tone eight days after cancelling the summit, citing Pyongyang’s “open hostility,” Mr Trump welcomed North Korea’s former intelligence chief, Kim Yong-chol, to the White House on Friday, exchanging smiles and handshakes.
All three of the new officials have at least some experience interacting with foreign delegations, a factor that is critical as Mr Kim seeks to line up meetings with leaders from the United States, China, Russia, and Syria.
“They are shaping these guys up because there is going to be a lot of foreign interaction,” Mr Madden said.
“They know to sit there and not get too drunk at the parties … they know how to behave themselves.”