North Korea has replaced its three most senior military officials with less hawkish appointees, with analysts suggesting Kim Jong-un is sidelining hardline factions who are opposed to his shift away from the longstanding “military first” policy.
There are even suggestions that the North Korean leader is acting out of concern that disgruntled military officers might attempt a coup when Mr Kim travels to Singapore for next week’s summit with US President Donald Trump.
No Kwang-chol, formerly the first vice minister of the North Korean People’s Armed forces, was promoted to minister during a meeting of the Central Military Commission on May 17 that was presided over by Mr Kim. South Korean intelligence has been unable to ascertain the fate of his predecessor, Pak Yong-sik, The Korea Herald reported.
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There are also reports that Ri Myong-su, chief of the General Staff, has been replaced, although it is not clear who has taken over the role. Mr Ri was caught on television apparently falling asleep during a meeting of the Central Committee on May 20 and may well have been punished for the transgression. In 2015, Hyon Yong-chol, a former defence minister, was reportedly executed for nodding off during a meeting addressed by Mr Kim.
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The most significant change, however, is that of director of the military’s General Political Bureau. Kim Su-gil, the former chairman of the Pyongyang City Committee of the Workers’ Party, took over as director in May from Kim Jong-gak, who had only been in the post since January.
“A prudent dictator replaces people fairly regularly so they do not become too entrenched or powerful within their realms or build up sufficient influence to plot rebellion”, said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.
Replacing the three most senior members of his military in the space of a month is considered unusual even for North Korea, however, and may have been prompted by rumblings of discontent among senior officers who disagree with Mr Kim’s decision to focus on the economy at the expense of the military.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper has quoted defectors in South Korea as suggesting that Mr Kim is “nervous” about leaving Pyongyang for his summit in Singapore with Mr Trump because he fears an uprising in his absence. Mr Kim’s schedule is usually a closely guarded secret, they added, and plotters will be aided by the fact that the schedule for the meeting – and his absence – is widely known.
“Replacing these officials is probably an attempt to coup-proof his regime because a dictator is at his most vulnerable when he is traveling abroad”, said Mr Pinkston.