South Korea is monitoring developments in the North’s armed forces, it said yesterday after reports that Pyongyang replaced three of its top military officials ahead of a summit with the US.
US President Donald Trump is due to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday next week in Singapore.
Reports said the reshuffle could be aimed at eliminating resistance to the peace overtures.
Pyongyang’s armed forces, known as the Korean People’s Army, are immensely influential in the North and a center of power in their own right, symbolized by the way Kim is habitually flanked by generals on one side and civilians on the other when attending major ceremonial events.
The North’s state media late last month said that Kim Su-gil had been appointed director of the military’s powerful General Political Bureau (GPB), replacing Kim Jong-gak.
According to Yonhap news agency, which cited intelligence sources, the chief of the general staff Ri Myong-su has also been replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong-gil, while minister of defense Pak Yong-sik had been succeeded by No Kwang-chol, previously first vice minister.
The wholesale reshuffle would be unusual if confirmed, the South Korean Unification Ministry said.
“We will monitor related developments,” Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told reporters.
According to researchers at NK Leadership Watch, the change at the top of the GPB “represents a continuation of tightening party control over the KPA.”
The bureau could be in a position to resist policy decisions by the leadership or try to profit from future South Korean economic aid, it said.
“Both of these things lend themselves to creating alternate power centers,” it said.
The new GPB director was a “highly trusted” lieutenant of Kim Jong-un, it added.
Reports said the wider changes could be aimed at preventing objections in the North’s senior military ranks to any sudden changes in the country’s nuclear policy.
Pyongyang has long argued that it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself against a possible invasion by the US.
Yonhap cited the intelligence source as saying the new defense minister, No, was known as a “moderate.”
“The North appears to have brought in new figures ... as the previous officials lacked flexibility in thinking,” the source said.
However, some analysts said the personnel change was more likely a response to an internal matter.
“It’s meaningless to divide North Korean officials into hardliners and moderates,” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Changwon, South Korea.
The personnel change was probably intended to implement the new economy-centered policies, he said, and officials with a better understanding in the area had been appointed.
No had formerly overseen the military’s financial issues as the chair of the Second Economy Commission, he said.
“It looks like they needed someone who can have a firm grip on the military and dynamically push ahead with the new policies amid changes in US-North Korea relations,” the professor added.
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