North Korea on Tuesday announced that it had promoted longtime field commander Gen. Hyon Yong-chol to vice marshal, a day after it revealed its dismissal of General Staff Chief Ri Yong-ho.
The announcement promoted speculation that Hyon, considered an obscure military figure in the South, may take up the post of the general staff chief, which is equivalent to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
Hyon, who is presumed to be in his early 60s, is known to have served in the 8th Army Corps since 2006. The corps is in charge of guarding the communist state’s northwestern areas including those near the border with China.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported the announcement, which was made under the names of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission and the National Defense Commission.
“Picking a field commander in charge of an Army corps as a core member of the military signals that first NDC chairman Kim Jong-un will reshuffle the military leadership, filling top posts with figures loyal to him,” a Seoul government official said, declining to be named.
Vice marshal is a rank higher than four-star general. The ill-fated Ri was vice marshal. Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau; Kim Jong-gok, minister of the People’s Armed Forces; and Vice NDC chairman Kim Yong-chun also have the same rank.
Hyon was elected as a member of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp legislature in March 2009. He was made a lieutenant general in February 2002. He was made a general and appointed as a member of the ruling party’s Central Committee in September 2010.
Compared with other high-profile top brass, Hyon was relatively obscure and experts say that his promotion is quite unusual.
“The fact that he has never accompanied Kim Jong-un during his official activities (considered), the promotion is a surprise and unusual,” said Cheong Seong-chang of think tank Sejong Institute.
He expected that he would soon take up key party posts such as member of the standing committee of the party’s politburo and of the party’s CMC ― posts left vacant by the dismissal of Ri.
Observers said that the fledgling leader appears to be in the process of replacing military figures appointed by his father with those he can more easily control and use in his drive to shore up the impoverished state.
“Kim appears to be readjusting the personnel structure arranged by his father to gain easier and smoother control of the military,” said Hong Hyun-ik of Sejong Institute.
“After using his father’s picks during a transitional period, he is apparently striving to dilute the military color in his governance structure and have aides who his family can well manage.”
With Hyon’s promotion, Kim is expected to carry out a swift generational change in the military. Some observers anticipated that the balance of power in the commanding structure is expected to shift to the General Political Bureau headed by Choe who has recently emerged as a centerpiece of Kim’s military control.
Some experts said that given that there are still generals in their 70s and 80s, the young leader could reduce the number of generals which currently stands at around 1,400.
Meanwhile, the North’s abrupt dismissal of Ri Yong-ho appears to be a “political purge” aimed at facilitating its leader Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power, a Seoul government official.
He also pointed out that some 20 high-ranking officials had apparently been removed since Kim was tapped as successor to his ailing father Kim Jong-il in early 2009. The elder Kim died last December.
The Korean Central News Agency reported on Monday that it had dismissed Ri from all official posts due to illness, sparking speculation over a possible military power struggle.
“It is customary in the North that high-ranking officials, including Cho Myong-rok cited as No. 1 in its military, maintain their posts ― despite illness ― until they die,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“Ri was an up-and-coming officer who spearheaded the efforts to facilitate the hereditary power succession. The fact that such an influential figure stepped down all of a sudden indicates that the reason for the dismissal is not that simple.”
The official stressed that there appeared to be some power struggle between Kim Jong-un’s family group and the new military elites, raising the possibility that in the worst case scenario, the tension between them could spark “serious political instability.”
He was referring to Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek and Choe Ryong-hae, a civilian-turned-general who heads the General Political Bureau as Kim’s family group. The new military elites include the ill-fated general Ri and his supporters.
The General Political Bureau is one of the most powerful military organs under the direct control of the ruling party. It controls key military personnel affairs, including promotion and position assignment, disciplinary action, awarding programs and ideological education.
“Before the hereditary power succession was completed, (the military elites) were useful. But they now can be a potential burden to Kim Jong-un’s efforts to strengthen his dictatorial state governance. The dismissal of Ri may be a strong warning to them,” said the official.
“The possibility is that he was sacked as Ri used his status to meddle in other departments’ affairs and caused conflict, particularly friction between him and Choe over authority to control military personnel affairs.”
The official said that Kim Yong-chol, chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North’s premier intelligence agency, may feel pressured amid an apparently power struggle between the two groups.
“Kim Young-chol, who helped Kim Jong-un achieve military feats through provocations such as the sinking of the corvette Cheonan and cyber attacks (on South Korea), might feel threatened,” he said.
“In case Jang and Choe raise pressure against the military elites, the power struggle would intensify and the military top echelons could make extreme decisions such as carrying out unexpected moves.”
He also paid particular attention to some 20 officials who have disappeared from the public eye since early 2009.
Among the ill-fated officials, Park Nam-gi, then chief of the planning and finance bureau of the Workers’ Party, was executed on charges of espionage in March 2010 after public displeasure increased over a botched currency reform.
In June 2011, Hong Sok-hyong, another economy-related senior official, was sacked after the North claims that he was found to have made comments critical of his country’s policy.
Relegated to lead the 4th Army Corps in February 2009, former General Staff Chief Kim Gyok-sik has yet to recover his former high status despite him leading the shelling of South Korea’s border island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010.
Noting that the new leader Kim had recently decreased the number of his visits to military units and increased his public activities at cultural events and educational facilities, the official indicated that the move was choreographed to show that there was nothing serious in the military.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)