North Korea has replaced its hard-line defense minister with a little-known army general, according to a state media report yesterday, in what outside analysts call an attempt to install a younger figure meant to solidify North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s grip on the powerful military.
Jang Jong-nam’s appointment is the latest move since Kim succeeded his father, late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in late 2011 that observers see as a young leader trying to consolidate control. The announcement comes amid easing animosities after weeks of warlike rhetoric from North Korea.
Pyongyang’s outbursts against massive US-South Korean war drills and UN sanctions over the North’s February nuclear test were seen, in part, as a push to portray Kim Joong-un at home as a respected military commander on the world stage.
However, Jang’s new role as minister of the People’s Armed Forces is not thought to indicate a potential softening of Pyongyang’s stance toward Seoul and Washington any time soon, analysts said. Jang replaces Kim Kyok-sik, the former commander of battalions believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans. Outsiders know little about Jang, but analysts said it is unlikely that Kim Jong-un would name a moderate to the post at a time of tension with the outside world.
Mention of Jang’s new role was buried in a state media dispatch listing those who attended an art performance with the young leader. It is not known exactly when Jang was formally appointed to the ministerial post.
The announcement coincided with the beginning yesterday of US-South Korean naval exercises involving a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier. North Korea has criticized the carrier’s inclusion, which it says are preparations for an invasion of the North.
Also, when tensions peaked in March, Washington took the unusual step of announcing that nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers had participated in the earlier, larger-scale joint drills between the allies. North Korea regularly cites the US’ nuclear arsenal as justification for its own pursuit of nuclear weapons.