North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un promoted a new army marshal after sacking his top general in what a South Korean official report said was a bid to impose his authority on a military that has been the backbone of his family’s long rule over the isolated state.
However, analysts said the moves, just seven months since rising to power, do not suggest any fundamental change to the policies of his grandfather and father which have left North Korea constantly on the brink of famine and ostracized by most of the world.
The rise of relative unknown Hyon Yong-chol to the rank of vice marshal was announced by North Korean state media on yesterday.
Thought by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense to be in his early 60s, Hyon first rose to prominence in 2007.
In 2010, he was named a “leader” along with then-heir apparent Kim Jong-un and his place in the ruling elite confirmed by being part of the official delegation at the funeral of the former ruler, and the young Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in December last year.
Generals in their 60s are considered young in North Korea, where remnants of the anti-Japanese struggle of the state’s founder Kim Il-sung — the new leader’s grandfather — who are in their 80s are still present in government and usually expected to die in uniform.
It was not known whether Hyon would replace Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho as head of the North Korean army, one of the world’s largest.
An assessment of the changes by the South Korean government said that about 20 top officials had been purged since Kim Jong-un began his ascent to power in 2009.
“The purging of Ri could be a message toward the new military, as it remains a threat to the Kim Jong-un regime, although it served an important purpose in helping Kim to the throne,” the report on Ri’s ousting said.
Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, has already stamped his image on North Korea, an impoverished nation with nuclear weapons ambitions and where a recent UN report said malnutrition stunts one in three children.
Partly educated in Switzerland and bearing a physical resemblance to his revered grandfather — who is the North’s eternal president — the young leader has jollied up his and North Korea’s image.
In sharp contrast to the austere, reclusive image of his father, state media has shown Kim visiting fun fairs, speaking in public and applauding at a rock concert at the weekend.
However, he appears to have done little, if anything, to address the desperate economic situation he inherited from his father in a country where average incomes are estimated by South Korea at just US$1,200 a year.
“Kim Jong-un is shuffling things to establish a system that fits his era and moving on from the transitional period that had been left over by his father,” said Koh Yu-hwan, an expert on North Korea’s ruling ideology at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“We will be seeing a lot of unknown characters in the era of Kim Jong-un,” he added.
One of the main beneficiaries of Ri’s ousting looks to be Jang Song-thaek, the young Kim’s uncle who married into the ruling family and who is reckoned by many analysts as the real power behind the throne.
The South Korean government report said the 66-year old Jang and Choe Ryong-hae, a long-time party member used as a counterbalance to Jang’s influence, were behind Ri’s ouster.