A little more than a week before his historic meeting with President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has removed his top three military officials, South Korea’s Yonhap has reported. The move is fueling speculation over the direction the isolated regime may be taking.
“No Kwang-chol, first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replaced Pak Yong-sik as defense chief, while Ri Myong-su, chief of the (Korean People’s Army) general staff, was replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong-gil,” Yonhap reported.
“These changes are in addition to Army Gen. Kim Su-gil’s replacement of Kim Jong-gak as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. The replacement was confirmed in a North Korean state media report last month.”
Japanese media reported that its sources said the reshuffle had something to do with the fact that “the previous officials lacked flexibility in thinking,” and that “(i)n particular, No Kwang-chol has been classified as a moderate person.”
While U.S. officials confirmed the reshuffle had happened, they did not immediately identify the officials involved.
Reuters reported that the firings were a “move analysts said on Monday could support efforts by the North’s young leader to jump-start economic development and engage with the world.”
“If Kim Jong Un is set on making peace with the U.S. and South Korea and dealing away at least part of the nuclear program, he will have to put the KPA’s influence in a box and keep it there,” Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, told Reuters.
“This reshuffle has brought to the fore the officers who can do just that. They are loyal to Kim Jong Un and no one else.”
The move would therefore tighten Kim’s hold over the KPA, something that would be critical if denuclearization were to be achieved.
Top members of the KPA would likely be among the first to object to a denuclearization deal, seeing it as a sign of weakness against the allied powers.
By demonstrating a tighter reign over the KPA, Kim could also be strengthening his hand before the Singapore summit. Keep in mind that he’s an awfully young leader as these things go.
There’s always been the question of how much of a grasp Kim has had over the country’s institutions and how many of its top officials would allow him to dictate what would inarguably be the most substantial change in course in the history of North Korea.
According to The Washington Post, Kim has also expressed concern that being out of the country — especially so far from Pyongyang — could expose him to a coup if things don’t go well with Trump, or he’s seen to come out as the loser in negotiations.
At the very least, he’s removed three of the individuals who could lead some sort of coup if those in officialdom get antsy.
Trump himself has tried allay some of these concerns publicly, adopting different language than he has in the past when it’s come to international negotiations.
“North Korea has a chance to be a great country,” Trump has said. “It can’t be a great country under the circumstances they’re living in right now. I think they should seize the opportunity, and we’ll soon find out whether or not they want to do that.”
If the news out of Pyongyang on Monday is any indication, Kim is leaning in the direction of seizing the opportunity.
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