Uncertainty surrounds North Korean military shake-up | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 17.07.2012
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Uncertainty surrounds North Korean military shake-up

As North Korea's army undergoes an unexpected reshuffle, analysts are speculating as to what this could mean for the future of relations between the North and the South.

Just two days after North Korea's Workers' Party dismissed General Ri Yong Ho from his position as chief of staff of the People's Army, citing an unspecified illness, General Hyon Yong Chul was named vice-marshal.

Very little is known about him except that he is believed to have commanded North Korea's 8th Army Division, a unit stationed in the country's northwest, close to the border with China.

On Tuesday, analysts in the South Korean capital, Seoul, were trying to determine whether the shake-up reflected a shift in North Korean military policy, which is now under the supervision of ruler Kim Jong-un.

"This could be a sign that North Korea is trying to improve relations with the South," said Choi Choon-heum, a researcher at the Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "Ri was probably dismissed from his position not because of illness, but because he was a military hardliner."

Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed North Korea's top job following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, last December there has been speculation that he might try to reform the reclusive state.

However, some observers say this is wishful thinking. "I don't see any sign of reform. He (Hyon) is of the same people (as Ri), hard-liners," said Daniel Pinkston, Northeast Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group in Seoul.

Hyon Yong-chol

Little is known about Hyon Yong-chol

Pinkston added that this was not a case of the old guard being replaced by a younger, more open generation of leaders. Hyon, who Pinkston said at first glance appears to be in his early 60s, would only be a few years younger than the 69-year-old Ri.

A warning?

Following Ri's dismissal, North Korea's official news agency reported that ruler Kim had dispatched a letter of gratitude to the People's Army. The full Korean text published by the Korean Central News Agency shows Kim Jong-un's full title - Supreme Commander. As with the reorganization within the military's top ranks itself, this could represent a subtle reminder of who is calling the shots, said Ahn Chan-il, the director of the North Korea Research Center.

"I think this decision is a warning to the North Korean military officials. Warning them not to interrupt Kim Jong-un's policies."

It remains unclear whether the reshuffle in the North's People's Army will result in any fundamental foreign policy change. Washington and Seoul both want Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons program before reengaging in dialogue.

Ri Yong Ho

Ri Yong Ho was originally appointed to groom Kim Jong-un

There is some concern that the Kim regime will carry out a third nuclear test following its failure to launch a rocket into orbit in April. For its part, Pyongyang has said that no such nuclear test is planned.

Its also uncertain what will become of Ri Yong ho. Officials who have fallen foul of their leaders are said to face expulsion into the countryside or at worst public execution. Ri had been a close confidant of the Kim family and appointed to his now former rank alongside Kim Jong-un in September 2010. Analysts say he was handpicked to groom the young ruler, who is only in his late 20s, ahead of his coming into power.

Daniel Pinkston said the well-connected Ri might have been suspected of corruption, which Kim Jong-un is allegedly trying to stamp out, but he said the real reason behind his removal might never be known.

"That's life in a dictatorship; people get purged. The people you want to get rid of first are those with an elite status who could pose a challenge to you."

Author: Jason Strother
Editor: Anne Thomas

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