SEOUL — North Korea’s state news media on Thursday confirmed the removal of a hard-line general as its military chief, the latest sign of an overhaul in which the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, has replaced nearly half of his country’s top officials in the past two years, according to South Korean officials.
The firing of General Kim Kyok Sik and the rise of General Ri Yong Gil to replace him as head of the general staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army was the latest in a series of high-profile reshuffles that Kim Jong Un has engineered to consolidate his grip on the nation’s top elites.
Since taking power upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has replaced 44 percent of North Korea’s 218 top military, party, and government officials, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said in a report. Kim engineered this and other reshuffles to retire or sideline the generals from his father’s days and promote a new set of aides who will owe their loyalty directly to him.
The reordering of top jobs has accelerated since July of last year, when Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, one of the most powerful men under Kim’s father, was fired as chief of the general staff of the North Korean military. He was replaced by Vice Marshal Hyon Yong Chol. Hyon, however, was soon demoted and replaced by Kim Kyok Sik in May.
Kim Kyok Sik, 74, had been one of the oldest aides of Kim Jong Il still holding a top job even after Kim Jong Un promoted younger generals. South Korean officials believed Kim Kyok Sik commanded units responsible for sinking one of South Korea’s warships and shelling a South Korean border island in 2010, attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.
But his name disappeared from North Korea’s state news media after the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party met in August to discuss personnel matters.
Little is known about Ri Yong Gil, who is in charge of the field operations of the North Korean military as chief of its general staff. He gained the attention of outside analysts when North Korean news media reported that he was one of the generals who advised Kim Jong Un this spring when North Korea threatened the United States and South Korea with nuclear strikes.
South Korean officials believed that Ri was appointed military chief during the August meeting of the Central Military Commission.
But North Korean news media mentioned his new title for the first time on Thursday in dispatches listing those who accompanied Kim Jong Un while visiting a Pyongyang mausoleum where his father and his grandfather, the founding president Kim Il Sung, lie in state. Thursday was the 68th anniversary of the Workers’ Party.
Ri joins General Jang Jong Nam, who became minister of the armed forces in May, and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae, the military’s top political officer, as Kim Jong Un’s top three military aides.