North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has given the heave-ho to three top military officials in a move that has tongues wagging. Is he paving the way for success in denuclearization talks with President Trump? Or, it is simply a generational shift. It’s very likely a little of both.
According to Yonhap news agency Kim Jong-un has replaced three of his top men in his inner circle. Though unofficially not verified, the news is being reported by several outlets as of late Sunday night. Washington Post names the men and notes one was a “confidant” of little rocket man’s father. I guess that means he knows where the bodies are buried.
The officials who reportedly were dropped are from some of the highest reaches 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 North Korean media last month, Yonhap said.
None of these men are spring chickens so it may be that Kim Jong-un wants to surround himself with younger men more in tune with his thoughts on a new path going forward for North Korea. Of course, the term ‘younger’ here is relative. The new general staff chief is 63 years old, replacing the 84-year-old Ri. (WaPo)
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.
Perhaps with the confirmation from President Trump that the summit is back on track for June 12 in Singapore, Kim Jong-un decided to get rid of some older advisers who are less than enthusiastic about Kim’s willingness to engage South Korea and the United States.
Kim’s motivation remains unclear but analysts said the shake-up allows him and the ruling party to tighten control over the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at a critical time of international engagement and domestic development.
“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,” said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization.
“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.”
Also noted in the Reuters piece, the new guys know how to handle foreign delegations. This, too, is important for the upcoming summit, if it happens.
All three of the new officials have at least some experience interacting with foreign delegations, a factor that is critical as Kim seeks to line up meetings with leaders from the United States, China, Russia, and Syria.
“They are shaping these guys up because there is going to be a lot of foreign interaction,” Madden said. “They know to sit there and not get too drunk at the parties … they know how to behave themselves.
The North Koreans are known for bottomless glasses around the dinner table. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke of “fending off” aggressive glasses refilling and continual toasts during dinner with Kim’s father.
If there’s a meal involved, the delegations will have worked out the menu in advance. Alcohol can pose special complications. Trump, for instance, is a teetotaler, while Kim is known to enjoy wine.
So did his father: “I spent much of the evening trying to fend off the North Korean delegation’s aggressive style of drinking, which appeared to require the constant refilling of glasses and near-continuous toasts,” Albright recalled.
Let’s hope that this military shake-up is good news and that Kim wants to work on an agreement that benefits his people and the security of the world. It’s hard to be too optimistic, though, given the history of the North Korean dictator and the failed agreements of the past.