North Korea named General Hyon Yong Chol vice marshal of the Korean People’s Army two days after firing its military chief in the biggest public power shift since leader Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father in December.
The Workers’ Party and the National Defense Commission promoted Hyon, the official Korean Central News Agency reported today without giving details. While there are at least four other vice marshals, the timing indicates Hyon has probably replaced Ri Yong Ho, said analysts including Koh Yu Hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
The shuffle at the top of the country’s 1.2 million-strong army underscores Kim’s effort to cement control of the impoverished state he inherited from his father, Kim Jong Il. The U.S., which has led efforts to isolate North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, pushed yesterday for reform that goes beyond personnel appointments.
“We can’t immediately conclude that Hyon is Ri’s replacement but the near-simultaneous announcements allow us to assume that he’s been chosen as a key military figure in the new Kim Jong Un era,” Koh said. “An unknown figure being publicly singled out proves that he’s of the new Kim regime, unlike veteran officials like Ri.”
Hyon has been mentioned in only three KCNA reports since 2008 and little is known about his age, education or background. The former lieutenant general of the eighth army was promoted to general at the September 2010 Workers’ Party meeting, when Kim Jong Un made his debut.
The Workers’ Party relieved Ri from his military and Politburo posts on July 15, KCNA said yesterday. While KCNA cited illness as the reason for Ri’s demise, it was probably due to a power struggle as Kim deployed military resources for infrastructure projects, said analyst Cheong Seong Chang, citing conversations with defectors and contacts in the North.
“Ri Yong Ho was most likely fired for resisting the Workers’ Party leadership, mainly on mobilizing soldiers for economic initiatives,” Cheong said. “The party is on board with Kim Jong Un’s decision to improve the economy through flagship construction projects over bolstering military might.”
Hyon needs to be named chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army to be confirmed as Ri’s replacement, said Kim Hyung Suk, spokesman of South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
The ministry has no comment on both the firing and the promotion, Kim said, while noting the report on Ri’s removal a day after the decision as a “highly unexpected move.” State media often issues news days or weeks after the fact.
“The speedy reporting may be a sign that the North is heading toward reform and transparency, but we still need to monitor the developments for stronger evidence,” he said.
Any changes in personnel without fundamental changes in policy “mean little,” Patrick Ventrell, a U.S. State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington yesterday.
South Korean Finance Minister Bahk Jae Wan expressed hope for a North Korean reform hours after the news of Ri’s removal, in an interview yesterday. The ministry has a team analyzing North Korea and contingency plans, Bahk said, while adding that predicting what’s ahead for the totalitarian regime is harder than forecasting the future of the euro region.
Immediately following the report on Ri’s firing, KCNA said Kim Jong Un sent a message of thanks to soldiers of the North Korean internal security forces for “their tremendous feats in major construction projects.” Kim lauded the servicemen for their participation in projects including the construction of the country’s largest hydroelectric power plant, a food processing factory and a university library.
Ri, 69, was an advocate of the so-called military-first policy espoused by Kim Jong Il, said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“The firing of Ri means the end of the country’s hawkish military-first policy putting the troops before any other policy objective, and possibly the beginning of governance more focused instead on improving the economy,” Yang said.
Kim, who was schooled in Switzerland and is believed to be less than 30 years old, has been trying to gain public support and strengthen his own grip on power. About 16 million of North Korea’s 24 million people suffer from chronic food insecurity, high malnutrition rates and deep-rooted economic challenges, Jerome Sauvage, United Nations resident coordinator in the capital of Pyongyang, said in a June 12 statement.
North Korea’s economy, isolated from most of the world’s markets over its nuclear weapons program, contracted in four of the past six years, according to South Korea’s central bank. Gross domestic product in the communist nation increased 0.8 percent in 2011 after a 0.5 percent decline in 2010, according to an estimate published by the Bank of Korea in Seoul.
North Korea’s per capita income was 1.33 million won ($1,160) while South Korea’s was 25 million won, according to its estimates. North Korea relies on China, its biggest trade partner, for energy and food assistance.
South Korean President Lee Myung Bak urged the North last month to follow the example of the political opening of Myanmar. The Southeast Asian nation’s efforts to reengage with the global economy were rewarded last week by President Barack Obama authorizing U.S. companies to invest in Myanmar for the first time in about 15 years.
In December, Ri and Kim lead the funeral procession for Kim Jong Il in below-zero weather through the snow-covered streets of Pyongyang. Ri appeared healthy in delivering an April 25 speech marking the 80th anniversary of the North Korean military’s foundation.
Signs of division emerged after the April 15 celebrations of North Korean state founder Kim Il Sung’s birth centenary. Choe Ryong Hae, a civilian official was promoted later that month to director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, a position similar in ranking to Ri’s.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org