WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s top three military officials have been removed from their posts, a senior US official said on Sunday, a move analysts said could support efforts by the North’s young leader to jump-start economic development and engage with the outside world.
Kim Jong Un is preparing for a high-stakes summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, the first such meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president.
The US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was commenting on a report that all three of the North’s top military officials were believed to have been replaced.
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 US 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 organisation.
“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.”
Trump revived the Singapore summit on Friday after canceling it a week earlier.
The US is seeking a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and US officials believe there was some dissension in the military about Kim’s approaches to South Korea and the US.
Trump wants North Korea to “denuclearise,” or get rid of its nuclear arsenal, in return for relief from economic sanctions. North Korea’s leadership is believed to regard nuclear weapons as crucial to its survival, while Kim has said he plans to focus on economic development.
Citing an unidentified intelligence official, Yonhap said No Kwang Chol, first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, had replaced Pak Yong Sik as defense chief, while Ri Myong Su was replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong Gil.
North Korean state media previously confirmed that Army General Kim Su Gil had replaced Kim Jong Gak as director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau.
The White House, State Department, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond immediately to requests for official comment.
South Korea’s unification and defense ministries declined to confirm the report, while an official at the Unification Ministry said the government was watching the leadership situation in the North closely.
Given the military’s secondary role in the country’s nuclear and missile programs, the moves are likely more about installing a younger, even more trusted cohort of officials who Kim Jong Un can rely on as he confronts a variety of domestic and international issues, said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.
“The nuclear weapons are a side issue,” he said.
The moves are likely linked in part to Kim Jong Un’s drive to have the military take a bigger role in critical infrastructure projects. That could explain why newly appointed director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, Army General Kim Su Gil, accompanied Kim Jong Un on a field guidance trip to a beach tourist zone with other officials, Madden said.