North Korea has confirmed the replacement of the country’s defense chief, who was believed to be purged.
The fate of Hyon Yong Chol has been the object of media attention since May when South Korean intelligence officials said he had been executed on charges of treason in late April. But the North, which rarely makes public pronouncements on such moves, has been silent on the status of the general.
In a report about a meeting with a Lao military delegation over the weekend, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency referred to four-star Army General Pak Yong Sik as the People’s Armed Forces Minister.
Pak, a top official at the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, was promoted to four-star general last month.
The North Korean official media’s treatment of Pak has been increasingly prominent since May, shortly after Hyon’s disappearance from the public. Last month, the Korean Central News Agency mentioned Pak’s name after Hwang Pyong So, director of the General Political Department of the Korean People’s Army, sparking speculation Kim Jong Un might have chosen the newly promoted general as a replacement for Hyon.
Some analysts in Seoul see Pak’s emergence as Kim Jong Un’s attempt to tighten his grip on the military.
“By appointing someone from the General Political Department Bureau of the Korean People’s Army as the People’s Armed Forces Minister, political officials in the military would be able to expand their influence, while the military loses its leverage," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. "That means Kim and the Workers’ Party of Korea would bolster their control of the military."
Kim Jin-moo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, South Korea’s state–run research institute, expected Kim to continue to reshuffle senior officials in an attempt to control the military.
“It is possible that Kim Jong Un will use Pak as another sacrifice if Pak does not follow his instructions properly or he shows incompetence,” said Kim.
Pak would be the North’s sixth defense chief under Kim’s rule. Last week, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told reporters Kim has executed about 70 officials since December 2011, when he took power.
North Korea has not responded to the allegations.
Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.