On Monday, news leaked from North Korea that the nation’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, had replaced three senior military officials within his regime with younger people believed to be more loyal to Kim. While North Korea has made no formal statements regarding this command shake up, it’s is widely speculated that the change was prompted by impending talks between Kim and American President Donald Trump, set to take place in Singapore on June 12th.
While most experts seem to agree that this change came as a result of the approaching summit, the question remains: to what end? Kim replaced the nation’s defense chief, chief of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) general staff, and the head of the state’s general political bureau — these positions were all held by seasoned officials ranging in age from 68 to 77 years old, and all of them served under Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. Their younger replacements are said to be loyal specifically to Kim Jong Un, which coincides with rumored concerns within the regime that someone could attempt to usurp the North Korean leader’s power during his trip to Singapore.
“All these (promoted) guys are top Kim Jong Un guys,” said Michael Madden, author of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog. “All three of them have held very sensitive and high-level positions under Kim Jong Un, they’re very loyal (to him), and all have experience interacting with foreign delegations.”
It is possible, then, that these personnel changes are intended to curb a growing level of dissent within the regime, but it’s difficult to ascertain if that dissent is rising from Kim’s aggressive rhetoric (and coinciding economic sanctions that have crippled the nation’s economy) or if it’s Kim’s recent shift in approach that seems to indicate some level of willingness to open his nation up to the international community. While Kim’s aggressive posture toward the world has been in keeping with the traditional North Korean diplomatic temperament, there is no denying that the level of threat posed by North Korea has increased dramatically under Kim’s rule, and as a result, nations have begun taking the same old threats a bit more seriously. Some within Kim’s regime may be upset that the people have continued to suffer under sanctions that seem to be derived by Kim’s ego.
However, there’s also a high likelihood that a lifetime of indoctrinated belief the West, and notable the United States, is an enemy to the North Korean people may make many uncomfortable with the idea of Kim meeting with the American president, and especially with the possibility of denuclearizing. For years, Kim’s regime has sold his nuclear endeavor to the people as a means to secure their sovereignty in the face of American imperialism. Senior leaders who have served under both Kims may be reluctant to embrace peace at the expense of the nation’s fledgling nuclear arsenal.
The idea of a coup taking place while Kim is traveling isn’t unheard of. In 1971, Uganda’s President Milton Obote was also traveling to Singapore to take part in a meeting of world leaders. While in Singapore, a man named Idi Amin led a coup against Obote, ending his term in office while he was still abroad. Kim, who allegedly had his older half-brother assassinated in Malaysia last year and is rumored to have an open contract on his nephew’s head, has long been concerned with consolidating and maintaining the power left to him by his father, so personnel changes aimed at ensuring he remains the nation’s Supreme Leader are perfectly in keeping with Kim’s historic behavior.
However, there is a chance that this change came because of older leaders being unwilling to accept the possibility of legitimate peace talks with a nation like the United States. If Kim genuinely aims to improve the standard of living for the North Korean people, playing ball with the West may be his only option — and he may be taking preemptive action to prevent senior military leaders from throwing a wrench in those gears.
Of course, that possibility supposes that Kim truly is approaching these talks with the sincere intent to broker peace, and in the minds of many, that may be too far a stretch.
Featured image: People watch a TV screen showing file footage of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 18, 2018. | Ahn Young-joon / AP