North Korea has reportedly removed its top three military chiefs in what’s being seen as an attempt by the leadership to continue the thawing of relations with the outside world ahead of this month’s planned summit with the US in Singapore.
A report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cites an unnamed intelligence source as confirming the information. Reuters says a senior US official, also speaking anonymously, has also endorsed the report. South Korean government ministries did not confirm or deny it.
The reported changes are being interpreted as a move to tame the military ahead of the scheduled summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump on June 12. The US president has revived the meeting after scrapping it a week earlier.
According to Yonhap, the posts to have been replaced at the Korean People’s Army are the first vice minister, the chief of general staff and the head of the General Political Bureau (GPB).
Analysts say the shake-up allows Kim Jong Un and the ruling party to tighten control over the army and neuter its influence, at a time when North Korea is seeking international engagement, domestic development and a denuclearisation deal with the United States.
“This reshuffle has brought to the fore the officers who can do just that. They are loyal to Kim Jong Un and no-one else,” said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research organisation.
US officials believe there has been some dissent in the North Korean military about Kim’s overtures to Seoul and Washington.
Last week the research body North Korea Leadership Watch commented on changes at the top of the GPB and said there was a “very good chance” of further senior army replacements, which now appear to have been confirmed.
“There is a speculative case to be made that the GPB, if not properly reined in, could present a formidable challenge to Kim Jong Un’s authority,” its blog commented.
All of the newly promoted officials are said to be younger than their predecessors and have some experience dealing with foreign delegations.
Another American official, quoted by Reuters, says preparations for the US-North Korea summit have made only “halting progress”, citing differences between US negotiators and the Trump administration.
The US president welcomed North Korea’s former intelligence chief, Kim Yong Chol, to the White House on Friday, in a dramatic shift in tone just eight days after he angrily cancelled the summit, citing Pyongyang’s “open hostility”.
The summit in Singapore is due to address nuclear tensions in the Korean peninsula but not the North’s catastrophic human rights record, to the concern of campaigners.