BMI View: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's frequent reshuffles of the military top brass may reflect difficulties in controlling the powerful military. This could prove destabilising for the regime.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to have reshuffled the military high command in late August, for the sixth time since succeeding his father Kim Jong Il in December 2011. Most notably, Kim chaired an expanded meeting of the ruling Korean Workers' Party (KWP)'s Central Military Commission (CMC) on August 25, a date t hat commemorates the country's Songun (military first) policy.
According to state media, the CMC meeting discussed an 'organisational matter', which is believed to have refer red to a military reshuffle. Additional evidence of personnel changes emerged on August 28, when Kim attended a football match in Pyongyang. Two prominent generals, namely general staff operations director Ri Yong Gil and defence minister Jang Jong Nam, were both seen wearing four stars on their shoulders, indicating that they had been promoted to full generals very recently. Furthermore, General Ri's ranking among officials accompanying Kim Jong Un was the same as that of the chief of the general staff, General Kim Kyok Sik, who was absent from the event, and has not been seen in public since early August. This triggered speculation that General Ri Yong Gil has displaced General Kim as army chief. If confirmed, this would suggest that Kim Jong Un is moving to consolidate his grip on the armed forces, given that Kim Kyok Sik, 75, was a prominent general in the Kim Jong Il era. Generals Ri and Jang are younger generation officers who have risen to prominence since Kim Jong Un assumed the leadership of North Korea. The highest-ranked military leader overall remains Vice-Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, who heads the army's General Political Bureau , which supervises senior officers . However, he is essentially a civilian bureaucrat in a military uniform, a fact that has reportedly fuelled resentment against him from career generals.
Frequency Of Military Reshuffles Unprecedented Under Kim Jong Un
The frequency of military reshuffles under Kim Jong Un has been unprecedented . H is father, Kim Jong Il, replaced the army chief and defence minister three times each during his 19 years in power. Kim Jong Un has now reshuffled these two posts three times each in less than two years. Overall, we cannot help but conclude that the rapidity of these changes reflect disagreements among North Korean's top leaders over who should command the military.
The highest-profile victim of Kim's purges was Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho, who was unexpectedly dismissed as chief of general staff in July 2012. We suspect that Ri was removed because he was a powerful individual whose status, whether intentional or not, made him an obstacle to Kim attaining full authority. Ri Yong Ho's successor was Hyon Yong Chol, a little known general who was immediately promoted to vice-marshal. However, within a few months, Hyon, along with several other top generals, were demoted by one rank for unclear reasons. The other generals were later restored to their previous rank s , but Hyon failed to be re-promoted. Hyon was replaced as army chief in May 2013 by Kim Kyok Sik, who had previously served as defence minister since November 2012, when he replaced Kim Jong Gak, a previously high-profile officer who was appointed to that post in April 2012.
Based on these developments and other reshuffles, it would appear that following Ri Yong Ho's removal, Kim Jong Un sought to fill his post with a younger general of his own choice, but for unclear reasons, Hyon proved insufficiently capable of the job, or met resistance from more experienced officers. This led to his replacement in May 2013 by Kim Kyok Sik, who i s one of North Korea's most experienced military commanders. The most probable reason for Kim's apparent replacement in August is that Kim Jong Un wishes to sideline officers from his father's era.
Going forward, we see a distinct possibility that Kim Jong Un will now replace his army chiefs and defence ministers every one or two years, in order to prevent any single military leader from becoming powerful enough to challenge his authority. The risk is that the frequent changes will undermine the morale of the top brass and fuel their resentment.
Too Early To Conclude A Policy Shift Is Underway
Ever since Kim Jong Un formally inaugurated his rule in April 2012, there has been speculation that he is seeking to rein in the power of the military in order to devote more resources to the civilian economy and carry out long-awaited economic reforms. However, there is very little evidence that Kim wishes to bring about sustained changes to North Korea's economic and foreign policies. Although a reformist technocrat, Pak Pong Ju, was re-appointed premier in April 2013, there has been no formal announcement of reforms. Meanwhile, Pyongyang's December 2012 rocket launch and February 2013 nuclear test, and the subsequent 'war scare' in March-April 2013, demonstrated that the regime will maintain its hardline policies.
Because Kim Kyok Sik was a known hardliner, and commanded North Korean military forces during Pyongyang's sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan and its attack on the Southern island of Yeonpyeong in 2010, there is speculation that his removal will presage a more moderate policy from the North. We are sceptical of this. Actual policy decisions of this magnitude are not the prerogative of a single general. Rather, they would have been reached by Kim Jong Un in cooperation with his closest civilian and military advisors.
Although North Korea is currently pursuing a rapprochement with the South , we caution that this could be subject to a reversal at any time.
|Source: BMI, South Korean media. Shaded names denote older generation generals.|
|Apr. 2012||Kim Yong Chun||Defence Minister||Kim Jong Gak||1st Vice Director, General Political Bureau|
|Vacant Post||Director, General Political Bureau||Choe Ryong Hae||Party Secretary For Military Affairs|
|U Tong Chuk||State Security Minister||Kim Won Hong||Military Security Chief|
|Kim Won Hong||Military Security Chief||Jo Kyong Chol||Unknown|
|Choe Sang Ryo||Cdr, Strategic Rocket Forces||Kim Rak Gyom||Unknown|
|Jul. 2012||Ri Yong Ho||Chief Of General Staff||Hyon Yong Chol||Cdr, 8th Army Corps|
|Jong Myong Do||Navy Commander||Kim Myong Sik||Unknown|
|Nov. 2012||Kim Jong Gak||Defence Minister||Kim Kyok Sik||Vice Defence Minister|
|Feb. 2013||Ri Myong Su||People's Security Minister||Choe Pu Il||Vice Chief Of General Staff|
|Choe Pu Il||Director, Gen Staff Operations||Ri Yong Gil||Cdr, 5th Army Corps|
|May 2013||Kim Kyok Sik||Defence Minister||Jang Jong Nam||Cdr, 1st Army Corps|
|Hyon Chol Hae||1st Vice Defence Minister||Jon Chang Bok||Director of Army Logistics|
|Hyon Yong Chol||Chief Of General Staff||Kim Kyok Sik||Defence Minister|
|Aug. 2013||Kim Kyok Sik (?)||Chief Of General Staff||Ri Yong Gil (?)||Director, Gen Staff Operations|