The North Korean government has replaced three high-ranking military leaders, according to its state-run media and South Korean intelligence sources. The developments come prior to an upcoming summit in Singapore where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Observers of the secretive North Korean dictatorship say that the new assignments are likely to be part of Kim’s efforts to strengthen his control over the negotiations, which include denuclearization talks, and consolidate his authority over the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
The new military officials include North Korean defense minister No Kwang-chol, KPA chief of general staff Ri Yong-gil, and Kim Su-gil, director of the General Political Bureau, which is a powerful KPA administrative body. The new military leaders are younger than their predecessors and closer to Kim, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, which cited intelligence sources.
North Korea, a repressive communist state that is loosely backed by China, first tested a nuclear bomb in 2006, alarming its neighbors and the international community.
Since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, North Korea has conducted further nuclear tests and tested larger and longer-ranged missiles. The United States, China, and other countries responded with sanctions that have severely impacted the already-destitute North Korean society.
In recent months, North Korea has given mixed signals about its willingness to permanently dismantle its nuclear program and arsenal, as the U.S. administration has been demanding.
In March, Kim Jong-un secretly visited China for meetings with its president, Xi Jinping, and expressed his nation’s commitment to denuclearization. The next month, Kim became the first North Korean leader to visit South Korea. Technically, the two countries have been at war with each other for nearly 70 years.
Later, Kim agreed to a June 12 summit with Trump in Singapore. But on May 24, North Korean vice minister of foreign affairs, Choe Son Hui, claimed that her country would not “beg the U.S. for dialogue.” She also said that it was up to the United States to decide whether to “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
Past negotiations with North Korea have been inconclusive, in part because of U.S. willingness to reduce sanctions and provide aid before the North Koreans took meaningful steps to shut down their nuclear project.
President Trump responded to Choe’s statement with a letter to Kim Jong-un canceling the summit to be held in Singapore, saying: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” The summit has since been reorganized after the North Korean government reaffirmed its desire to hold it.
Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organisation, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post: “If Kim Jong-un is set on making peace with the U.S. and South Korea and dealing away at least part of the nuclear program, he will have to put the KPA’s influence in a box and keep it there.”
“This reshuffle has brought to the fore the officers who can do just that. They are loyal to Kim Jong-un and no one else,” Gause told SCMP.
According to NK Leadership Watch, a think tank analyzing political developments in North Korea, the KPA leadership reshuffle shows that Kim Jong-un is reinforcing his control over the military and government.
Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website, of which NK Leadership Watch is an affiliate, told SCMP: “The nuclear weapons are a side issue.”