Kim reshuffles the ranks to gain control of military


NORTH KOREA’S new leader, Kim Jong-un, is purging the upper ranks of the military after he installed a little-known regional army chief to a key command position in the 1.2-million-strong force.

The appointment of Hyon Yong-chol as vice-marshal of the Korean People’s Army came after a former mentor of Kim, Ri Yong- ho, was dismissed as vice-marshal yesterday, with ill-health cited as a reason.

However is part of what is looking increasingly like a purge.

Analysts believe Kim is engaged in a generational change since he took over power seven months ago, replacing the old guard appointed by his father with military figures he can more easily control as he seeks to establish his authority.

“Picking a field commander in charge of an army corps as a core member of the military signals that first National Defence Commission [NDC] chairman Kim Jong-un will reshuffle the military leadership, filling top posts with figures loyal to him,” the Korea Herald quoted an unnamed Seoul government official as saying.

The replacement is relatively obscure and the new vice-marshal is not thought to have ever accompanied the new leader on his official duties.

Hyon is the fourth vice-marshal appointment North Korea has made public since the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, while some 20 high-ranking officials have apparently been removed since the younger Kim was put forward as successor to his ailing father in early 2009.

“Kim appears to be readjusting the personnel structure arranged by his father to gain easier and smoother control of the military,” Hong Hyun-ik of the think-tank, Sejong Institute, told the Korea Herald.

“After using his father’s choices during a transitional period, he is apparently striving to dilute the military colour in his governance structure and have aides who his family can well manage.

“Mr Ri would certainly have played a role in winning over the military when the elder Kim was trying to bolster Kim Jong-un as his successor to continue the world’s only communist dynasty, begun by the Supreme Leader, Mr Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.”

Kim Hyung-suk, a spokesman for South Korea’s unification ministry, said: “Mr Hyon will need to be named chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army to be confirmed as Mr Ri’s replacement.”

Analysts are now waiting to see how things develop – to see if this is merely an organisational purge, or if it signals that North Korea could be about to reform.

Bruce Klingner, a North Korea analyst at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington, told the Associated Press that the shake-up was cause for concern, regardless of whether Kim Jong-un was solidifying his power at the top or dealing with a direct challenge to his leadership of the country.

“North Korean leadership instability is worrisome to the United States and its allies since it increases the potential for volatility, additional provocative acts, or implosion of a regime possessing nuclear weapons,” Klingner said.

The isolated state, whose only major ally is China, is still technically at war with South Korea since the 1950-53 Korea War ended without a formal armistice.

The United States backs South Korea and has more than 28,000 troops in the country.

South Korea’s military has not changed its military alert level at news of the North Korean shuffle, the country’s defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in Seoul.

Pyongyang has been isolated and heavily sanctioned by the international community for its nuclear weapons programme.

It says it is building up nuclear capability to defend itself against possible attacks from Seoul and Washington.

Meanwhile, a South Korean news channel said it had “confirmed” that a mysterious woman with whom Kim Jong-un watched a concert and visited a kindergarten last week was in fact his wife.

YTN quoted North Korean sources saying that she was a 27-year-old woman from Chongjin, North Hamgyeong province, who graduated from Kim Il-sung University and had married the young leader in 2009 while she was still working on her PhD.

She apparently gave birth to a daughter in 2010. The broadcaster only identified her by her surname, Hong.

She has been the subject of much speculation in recent days after she appeared in a yellow dress visiting a kindergarten with Kim.

It is highly unusual for a consort to appear in public with a North Korean leader.