North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is shuffling top military and security officials probably to cement his grip on power, seven months after he succeeded his father, according to regional analysts.
On Wednesday, Mr. Kim was awarded the rank of marshal, the equivalent to a six-star general, in the latest in a series of appointments, firings and disappearances that have reshaped the leadership of the secretive and closed communist state.
Over the weekend, Gen. Ri Yong-ho, chief of the general staff of the Korean Armed Forces and Mr. Kim’s deputy on a number of key state committees, was abruptly relieved of all his posts, on the grounds of ill-health, in a rare public move.
Gen. Ri was believed to have orchestrated Mr. Kim’s succession after the his father, Kim Jong-il, died suddenly in December. Gen. Ri’s public removal sent a clear message about who was in charge, according to one U.S. official not authorized to speak to the media.
“If they can get rid of [Gen.] Ri, they can get rid of anyone,” the official said. “The message is: no one is safe.”
But as analysts are quick to point out, the question is, who are “they?”
“It’s a little hard to tell whether it was [Mr.] Kim himself who got rid of Ri, or some group around him, probably led by [his uncle] Jang [Song-thaek],” said Bruce Bennett, a scholar at the Rand Corp., a think tank with historic links to the U.S. military.
Mr. Jang and his wife, Kim Kyong-hui, Mr. Kim’s aunt, are powerful figures in the hierarchy of the Korean Workers’ Party. Mr. Jang is vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the leadership body chaired by Mr. Kim that brings together the heads of all the military services and security agencies.
By firing Gen. Ri and getting rid of Minister of State Security Gen. U Tong-chuk and Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Gen. Kim Yong-chun earlier this year, Mr. Kim is likely tightening control over the military and security forces, said Mr. Bennett.
Although his father’s policy of Songun, “military first,” has not been publicly repudiated by Mr. Kim, the new leader “seems to be leaning a bit more towards the party [as a mechanism for governing] than his father did,” said Mr. Bennett.
But there is always more than one way to interpret the rare public signals from North Korea. Some see the move as designed to consolidate the power of the family clique around Mr. Kim, pointing to the recent and unprecedented public appearance of a woman at his side, who is believed to be his wife.
“The significance of her appearance is reminding everyone that we can expect more little Kims in the future,” said Victor Cha, a former national security official who is now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
State television showed soldiers dancing in Pyongyang at the announcement of Mr. Kim’s promotion, but it is unclear what the practical importance of it will be. Previously, he held a rank equivalent to a four-star general, but he was technically outranked by the military’s four vice-marshals.
Mr. Kim also already held the post of supreme commander of the armed forces and was chairman of both the National Defense Commission and the party’s Central Military Commission.
Gen. Hyon Yong-chol was introduced alongside Mr. Kim on Wednesday as the man replacing Gen. Ri. Gen. Hyon is one of the four vice-marshals and chief of the general staff.
Little is known about Gen. Hyon, who until 2010 seems to have served as commander of the Eighth Army Corps near the country’s northeastern border with China.
In September 2010, he was promoted to four-star general status during the party conference that introduced Mr. Kim as his father’s successor. In December, he was appointed as a member of the special committee responsible for organizing the state funeral of Mr. Kim’s father.