A leadership change in a nation's military should not be cause for concern. However, North Korea is no ordinary country, making the key appointments and demotions of the past week a matter of intense speculation. A dictatorial regime, political opaqueness, one of the world's biggest standing armies, nuclear and missile programmes that defy international rules and war-like posturing towards the US, South Korea and Japan have ensured that there is as much worry as intrigue. Intentionally or not, it has increased uncertainty in a region that for too long has lived with instability.
Leader Kim Jong-un has taken the top military position of marshal, days after army chief Ri Yong-ho was replaced by Hyon Yong-chol, a little-known general. State media said Ri's replacement was due to 'illness', a term commonly used by previous regimes when purging military officers and officials. Ri was a childhood friend of Kim's father, late leader Kim Jong-il, who had made him his son's mentor. The shake-up, just seven months into the younger Kim's rule, has been interpreted as either a solidifying of power, bringing in of a new guard or ridding the military ranks of unsuitable officers.
Whatever the reason, the changes do not allay uncertainty and concern. It has been hoped that Kim, in his late 20s, will make peace with enemies and institute wide-ranging reforms that will usher in freedoms, ignite the economy and open the secretive country. There have been tantalising glimpses of a different style and substance, with the leader upending tradition by making public speeches, women now being allowed to wear mini-skirts and previously shunned American symbols like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh appearing in a televised concert. But the manner in which the military overhaul has taken place does not point towards a significant shift.
Reform is about more than rhetoric and hints. If North Korea is to prosper and thrive, secrecy and threats have to be cast aside. Being transparent to the outside world would be a good place to start.