North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shuffled his senior military staff. Photo: Reuters/KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has shuffled his senior military staff. Photo: Reuters/KCNA

In the run-up to North Korea’s first summit with the United States, Pyongyang has replaced its top three defense officials, according to South Korea news agency Yonhap and other media reports.

No Kwang-chol, the first vice-minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, replaced Pak Yong-sik as defense minister, while Ri Myong-su, the chief of the Korea People’s Army’s (KPA) general staff, was replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong-gil, Yonhap reported, quoting an unnamed source.

Also, General Kim Su-gil replaced Kim Jong-gak as director of the powerful General Political Bureau of the KPA, according to North Korean state media last month.

It is unclear whether Kim Jong-un is removing hardliners – who dominated military policy last year, when Pyongyang-Washington tensions were at their apex – from the high command ahead of his upcoming summit with Donald Trump, or is simply replacing old figures.

All the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, including 63-year-old Ri Yong-gil, who is 21 years younger than Ri Myong-su, Reuters reported.

“I think it is a loyalty check. I think he is pulling in people who are more loyal to him as he may be getting some pushback on this stuff he is doing with the Americans,” said Steve Tharp, a retired US Army colonel and former negotiator with the KPA, referring to mixed messages coming from Pyongyang.

Last month, North Korea interrupted the détente that had been developing on the peninsula by cancelling high level talks with South Korea and publishing vitriolic attacks against the US in state media. Those moves compelled Trump to temporarily cancel the summit, set for June 12 in Singapore, and prompted a diplomatic whirlwind as officials from both North and South Korea scrambled to get the summit back on track.

Alternatively, the move could simply be a routine personnel reassignment. “One thing they do is rotate people around, so nobody gets too comfortable,” said Tharp. “We won’t know now serious this is, unless the retired people are not heard from again in six months.”

Although unlikely, there could have been a more pressing need for Kim to act: In February, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told the National Assembly in Seoul that discontent was brewing in the powerful, 1.1 million-strong KPA. The force not only controls most of the nation’s arms, but also has strong economic interests.

Mutinies inside the KPA are rare and very little information about them has leaked out to the wider world, but at least two are believed to have occurred – both against the regime of Kim Jong-un’s late father, Kim Jong-il.

In the “6th Corps Affair” officers of the Sixth Corps in northeastern North Korea are believed to have plotted a coup d’etat, which included aiming their missiles at certain buildings in Pyongyang. And in the “Frunze Academy Affair,” elite young officers who had been studying at Moscow’s Frunze Academy, and were recalled home after the death of first-generation dictator Kim Il-sung, are believed to have plotted a regime overthrow.

However, both conspiracies failed.