Experts See Signs of Assertive Leader in North Korean Military Shakeup

The firing this week of North Korea's most powerful military official is being viewed as a sign that leader Kim Jong Un is taking steps to assert more control over the aspiring nuclear power's armed forces (see GSN, July 16).

Regime-controlled media cited illness as the reason for the dismissal of Korean People's Army Vice Marshal and General Staff head Ri Yong Ho, who is understood to have been a close confidant of deceased dictator Kim Jong Il. On Tuesday, the Korean Central News Agency announced that Hyon Yong Chol had been elevated to the vice marshal position, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The shakeup is the most notable yet in the regime of Kim Jong Un, the late-20s leader who assumed power after his father died at the end of 2011.

"Up to now, the military has been a major obstacle to any bold moves in North Korea," South Korean political expert Moon Chung-in told the Journal

Washington on Monday minimized the implications of the military shakeup. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that "changes in personnel absent a fundamental change in direction mean little."

However, some unidentified ex-U.S. officials do see indications of serious changes taking place within the isolated North, though not necessarily the economic and political reforms long sought by the United States. Some experts hope the younger Kim could eventually move toward substantive engagement with the international community.

"This is the process of building Kim Jong Un's system," Dongguk University academic Kim Young-hyun said in an interview. Now that Ri has been dismissed, "they got rid of a person who has a strong image in the military," he said (Evan Ramstad, Wall Street Journal, July 16).

North Korea has a been a pariah state for many years, due in large part to its pursuit of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang remains under heavy sanctions ordered by the U.N. Security Council as punishment for the regime's ballistic missile and nuclear activities. Regional six-nation talks aimed at permanently shuttering the country's nuclear weapons program have not been held since December 2008.

"Fasten your seatbelts. There's turbulence ahead," predicted Trinity University Korea expert Donald Clark in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.

"The regime is not stable," according to Korea Institute for National Unification senior fellow Choi Jin-wook. "Kim Jong Un has maybe 70 percent of the power of his father. The remaining 30 percent is an empty void" (Donald Kirk, Christian Science Monitor, July 16).

The White House on Monday said it was waiting for serious signs of improvement by Pyongyang and would not conjecture about the meaning behind the recent developments, Agence France-Press reported.

"The way we address the issue of policy towards North Korea has to do with holding North Korea accountable to its international obligations and judging North Korea by its actions and not spending a lot of time trying to read into personnel moves in what is one of the world's most opaque governments and societies," White House spokesman Jay Carney said to reporters.

Washington has repeatedly called on the North to honor its previous nuclear disarmament pledges and to cease flouting Security Council restrictions that forbid it from engaging in all international weapons dealings.

South Korea, though, said the abrupt removal of Ri was exceptionally abnormal and that it would closely monitor the situation across the border.

Ri has been viewed as particularly hawkish. In March, the now-deposed military chief publicly called for a "sacred war" against the South as punishment for perceived slights against the Stalinist regime. He also served as an adviser to Kim Jong Un following the December demise of Kim Jong Il (Agence France-Presse/Google News, July 16).

July 17, 2012

The firing this week of North Korea's most powerful military official is being viewed as a sign that leader Kim Jong Un is taking steps to assert more control over the aspiring nuclear power's armed forces.