North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has fired his top general amid a shakeup of the country’s military leadership and wants his army to “gird for a war,” state media reported Thursday.
Gen. Pak Su Il was dismissed as chief of the General Staff and Vice Marshal Ri Yong Gil was appointed in his place, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Other “leading commanding officers” were dismissed, transferred or appointed during a meeting of the Central Military Commission on Wednesday, KCNA reported, without going into details.
North Korea regularly revamps its military leadership. Some military leaders later reemerge in different positions, while others disappear from public view.
And the career of the new top general Ri – who assumed the No. 2 job in the North Korean military hierarchy as recently as December 31 – reflected that, analysts said.
“Ri Yong Gil is a longstanding member of North Korea’s military elite, who before making it to the top, experienced ups and downs during his career. Seven years ago, he was even rumored to have been executed after a personnel reshuffle,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute private think tank near Seoul, said there may be a range of reasons behind Kim’s military reshuffle and it was not necessarily punitive.
“Since Kim Jong Un has frequently promoted, demoted, and dismissed executives according to their ability to perform duties, dismissal of executives may be holding them accountable, but it is inappropriate to consider them as punishment,” Cheong said.
Easley said the North Korean leader may simply be trying to ensure that no one below him becomes too powerful.
“Kim Jong Un frequently rotates leadership posts below him to prevent the emergence in North Korea of anyone like [Wagner Group founder] Yevgeny Prigozhin, who challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority after amassing personal control of financial assets and loyalty among armed forces,” Easley said.
‘Grave military situation’
The shake-up of the military leadership was mentioned only near the end of the KCNA report, which focused more on what it said was the “important issue of making the army more thoroughly gird for a war given the grave political and military situation prevailing in the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korea and its chief ally, the United States, were not mentioned by name in the report. However, it appeared to refer to them obliquely, saying the meeting “analyzed the military moves of the chief culprits of deteriorated situation” on the peninsula.
“Making full war preparations” was the top agenda item for the meeting, the KCNA report said.
“The present situation, in which the hostile forces are getting ever more undisguised in their reckless military confrontation with the DPRK, [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] requires the latter’s army to have more positive, proactive and overwhelming will and thoroughgoing and perfect military readiness for a war,” it said.
North Korea has ramped up its military rhetoric this summer, threatening to shoot down US reconnaissance planes and retaliate for the port call of a US nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarine to South Korea for the first time in four decades.
Pyongyang has also showcased its advances in ballistic missile technology, last month testing what it said was a Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a flight time that suggests it has the ability to strike the US mainland.
That weapon was among a slew of others shown off at what North Korea called its “Victory Day” parade last month, a commemoration of the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War 70 years ago. Technically, the two Koreas remain at war as no formal peace treaty was ever signed.
At Wednesday’s meeting in Pyongyang, Kim signed orders for war drills involving the country’s newest weapons.
Kim late last week toured arms and munitions factories and gave “important directions” regarding “capacity-building for the serial production of new ammunition,” a KCNA report said.
Amid the tension on the peninsula, South Korea announced this month it would hold a nationwide civil defense drill on August 23.
Most of the country’s 51 million residents are expected to practice evacuating to shelters or underground safe spaces during the 20-minute exercise, which Seoul says is in response to “provocations” from Pyongyang.