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North Korea Replaces Top Army Official Amid Nuclear Warnings

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un replaced the military’s top political officer, his de facto deputy, as South Korea reports there are signs the regime is preparing to conduct a fourth nuclear test.

Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So was identified by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency today as director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. The post had been held by Choe Ryong Hae, considered to be Kim’s top deputy since the leader purged his uncle Jang Song Thaek in December last year. It’s unclear whether Choe has been ousted or moved to another role.

“Choe may have been sacked for mishandling his job or voluntarily resigned due to health reasons, we have yet to see,” Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said by phone. “What’s clear is Kim is further tightening his grip on power by appointing Hwang, who’s been at the forefront of the movement to unite the country behind Kim.”

Hwang was also promoted to vice marshal of the army, KCNA reported April 28. The moves coincide with South Korea’s assessment in the past two weeks that the North is boosting activity at its nuclear test site.

Kim took power in December 2011 after his father Kim Jong Il died, and has replaced the chief of general staff three times. In February last year, his regime conducted the country’s third nuclear test.

Following the launches of dozens of rockets earlier this year, including missiles banned under United Nations resolutions, North Korea said it could conduct a “new form” of nuclear test.

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