In a move U.S. officials say is to jump-start the country’s economic development and engage more with the outside world, North Korea has replaced their top three military officers.
Kim Jong Un is preparing for a high-stakes summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, the first such meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president.
The U.S. official, who spoke on Sunday on condition of anonymity, was commenting on a report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency 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 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.
The United States is seeking a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and U.S. officials believe there was some dissension in the military about Kim’s approaches to South Korea and the United States.
Trump wants North Korea to “denuclearize”, 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 moves are seen by some officials as a way of Kim Jong Un of consolidating his power by installing younger, more capable officers in charge who are totally loyal to him and have the military at the forefront of all of his economic development programs.
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