SEOUL — Three of North Korea’s top military officials have been replaced, a South Korean news agency reported Monday, marking an apparent shake-up in leader Kim Jong Un’s inner circle before next week’s planned summit with President Trump.
The report by the Yonhap news agency, citing an intelligence source, could not be independently verified.
But, if confirmed, the moves suggest another step in Kim’s ongoing reorganization in military leadership — this time bringing in younger military overseers to replace older ranks possibly at odds with his outreach to the United States and its ally South Korea, experts said.
The officials who reportedly were dropped are from some of the highest echelons of the North’s military structure, including Ri Myong Su, the chief of general staff for the Korean People’s Army. Ri was thought to be a confidant of Kim’s father, the late leader Kim Jong Il.
The others dismissed, according to Yonhap, were defense chief Pak Yong Sik and Kim Jong Gak, director of the political bureau of the North Korean army.
It was unclear when the changes were carried out, but plans to replace Kim Jong Gak were reported in the North Korean media last month, Yonhap said.
North Korea made no immediate reference to any military changes, and it remains difficult to assess whether the shake-up could signal a significant change in North Korean policies.
It appeared, however, that it represented some level of generational shift. All the officials who were reportedly promoted were younger than those dismissed, according to Yonhap, including the new general staff chief, Ri Yong Gil, who at 63 is 21 years younger than the outgoing Ri Myong Su.
To underscore the challenges in following North Korean affairs, the Yonhap agency reported erroneously in February 2016 that Ri Yong Gil had been executed as part of high-level purges. But he and the two other generals who reportedly were promoted to top positions — No Kwang Chol and Kim Su Gil — have been seen at major party and military events with the North’s leader over the past two years, according to 38 North, a website that closely follows North Korean affairs.
Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the reported new military leadership brings expertise in military-run economic affairs rather than combat strategies.
This could be a sign that the North Korean leader is “pursuing a new policy to become a developing country without nuclear weapons, rather than a poor country with nuclear weapons,” he said.
“He has chosen the route of pursuing denuclearization and a peace treaty through dialogue, and is appointing a new generation of military leaders to set the tone for his vision,” Kim Yong Hyun said.
He described Kim’s reported move as sidelining “leaders of the past, of Kim Jong Il’s generation.”
“Kim Jong Un has chosen a new leadership who reflects his new approach and can more naturally propagate his new policies to bring stability within the military,” the professor said.
The military moves also may be viewed as another step by Kim to underscore his willingness to make bold internal changes ahead of the scheduled June 12 summit with Trump in Singapore. But the North has given no clear hints about how far it could go toward meeting U.S. demands to dismantle its nuclear program.
Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch website, said the military changes, if confirmed, are part of a gradual remake to put the armed forces in the hands of Kim loyalists.
“These are guys that are Kim Jong Un guys — Kim Jong Un loyalists and people who he trusts,” Madden said, noting that Kim also may have wanted to make sure his handpicked military chiefs are in charge when he leaves for the Singapore summit.
“If he doesn’t bring them to Singapore with him, it might help to have them in watch while he goes away, like a designated survivor,” Madden said.
Appointing his loyalists to the top military ranks would ensure there is no communication gap or corruption that could jeopardize improving inter-Korea relationships, Madden said. The military oversees distribution of resources from the South, which likely will pick up as the two Koreas try to forge more cultural and diplomatic contacts.
“It’s a good choice of support for his diplomacy efforts. It’s good to have these people in high office to provide him follow-through,” Madden said. “So if there are policies he needs to implement, these are people who are not going to be resistant to that and they will make sure his policies are implemented in a timely fashion.”