North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un appears to have replaced his hawkish, ageing army chief in what analysts suggested on Friday was a further bid to tighten control over the military.
Kim Kyok-sik, 75, is believed to have been replaced as chief of the army’s general staff by Ri Yong-gil who, until now, has headed the army’s general staff operations department.
The North on Sunday held a meeting of the powerful central military commission where personnel changes were made, state media reported.
Then on Wednesday, in a report on top-ranking officials attending a football match in Pyongyang, the official Rodong Sinmun daily named Ri ahead of Jang Jong-nam, the defence minister, while Kim was not mentioned at all.
Ri, believed to be in his 60s, was also pictured with the insignia of a four-star general, compared to his previous three stars.
“The state media does sometimes mess around with the order of senior officials’ names ... but there is a possibility General Ri has replaced General Kim,” the specialist website NK Leadership Watch noted.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul said the listing change coupled with the promotion to four-star general meant Ri “must have taken over” as army chief.
An official with South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the government had a policy of not commenting on reported personnel changes in the North.
North Korea’s young leader has substantially reshuffled his military top brass since taking over the reins of power from his late father Kim Jong-il in December 2011, in an apparent attempt to secure his leadership.
Kim Kyok-Sik was seen as a hardliner and reportedly ordered the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in November 2010 when he commanded the North’s Fourth Army Corps.
Kim was only named army chief three months ago. He had previously held the post from 2007-2009.
Chang Yong-seok of the Institute for Peace and Unification at Seoul National University said Kim was a legacy appointee from the Kim Jong-il era.
“This means Kim Jong-un has almost completed replacing old generals left over from his father’s time with younger generals who are loyal to himself,” Chang said.