BEIJING — North Korea on Wednesday named its young leader, Kim Jong Eun, “marshal” of the military, a preeminent job title that analysts say is designed to reinforce his absolute power and warn off members of senior elites who might question it.
The title appears redundant, because Kim already served as the military’s supreme commander. But the timing of the announcement is significant, outside experts say, coming just two days after the North dismissed a top army leader — perceived hard-liner Ri Yong Ho — and perhaps doubling as a message about Kim’s willingness to shape the 1.2 million-strong military as he sees fit.
What Kim will do with the military remains a fiercely debated question in Seoul and Washington. The issue also holds deep implications for an impoverished country of 24 million that channels its scant resources toward weapons and nuclear technology.
In power for seven months now, Kim has given no clear sign that he will de-emphasize the military or push for the economic reforms that his father and grandfather long resisted. But some experts see a pattern emerging as Kim shuffles the military leadership: He sidelines hard-
liners and replaces them with Workers’ Party bureaucrats — precisely the group that had been marginalized under the military-first policy of his father, Kim Jong Il.
“It’s clear there is an internal conflict between the royal family and the military,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Kookmin University. He said Kim Jong Eun, joined by his powerful aunt and uncle, has aligned himself with top Workers’ Party members and is “dressing them up in military uniforms.”
Still, Lankov and others cautioned that the changes might not indicate an actual policy shift.
“We tend to believe the military might be hard-liners and party members are technocrats,” Lankov said. “That might indicate a more relaxed policy line, but it’s too early to say. Because people usually fight not over ideas — they fight over yachts and nice houses.”
Since Kim Jong Il’s death in December, North Korea has offered the outside world conflicting evidence that a shift is underway.
The government infuriated its neighbors by launching a rocket, but it also admitted to its own people, in a rare moment of transparency, that the launch had proved a dud. Kim Jong Eun gave two public speeches — something his reclusive father never did — but used them mostly to recite familiar slogans about military power. New apartments are rising in Pyongyang, but recent visitors to the country speak of 19th-century conditions in the vast rural areas — mostly barren land, where oxen are the primary mode of transport.
The picture of Kim’s intentions could become clearer in coming months, analysts say, now that he has his own team of leaders in place. The surprising dismissal of Ri on Monday was attributed to “illness” by the North’s state media, but outside experts interpreted the move as a firing. By booting a senior official whom his father had appointed to oversee the hereditary power transfer, Kim Jong Eun “kicked off the training wheels,” Scott Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog post.
“I see the dismissal of Ri as the last step of a military shuffle,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul. “There is a possibility that Ri had resisted the party’s control over the military.”
Some of the most notable shuffling happened in April at a major national conference. Aside from Kim, who was given a handful of the supreme titles held by his father and grandfather, the clear winner was Choe Ryong Hae, a mid-level bureaucrat who emerged with across-the-board power that brought him into the Kim family’s inner circle.
Choe was also named a vice marshal in the military, unprecedented for a civilian in the military-first era, according to Luke Herman, a North Korea leadership expert.
Even before Wednesday’s announcement, there was little reason to doubt Kim’s No. 1 position in military, analysts say. But he officially still held the rank of general, which technically left him below a handful of “vice marshals,” including Ri.
“The whole issue just shows that although Kim Jong Eun is very young, he is eager to prove that he is no longer the puppet controlled by some senior minister reigning behind the curtain,” said Zhu Feng, of Peking University’s School of International Studies. “He’s able to establish his absolute authority in the system and has capacity to govern the country directly.”
Only Kim’s father and grandfather have held military ranks higher than marshal. Founder Kim Il Sung was named generalissimo in 1992, and Kim Jong Il was awarded the title posthumously.
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.