Kim Jong-un replaces North Korea's top 3 military leaders ahead of Trump summit
New appointees may not be as wedded to nuclear doctrine, some analysts say
North Korea's top three military officials have been removed from their posts, a senior U.S. official said, in a move that could support efforts by the North's young leader to jump-start economic development and engage with the world.
Kim Jong-un is preparing for a high-stakes summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, the first such meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president.
The U.S. official, who spoke on Sunday on condition of anonymity, was commenting on a report by South Korea's Yonhap news agency that all three of the North's top military officials were believed to have been replaced.
Citing an unidentified intelligence official, Yonhap said No Kwang-chol, first vice-minister in the Defence Ministry, had replaced Pak Yong-sik as the defence chief, while Ri Yong-gil had returned as the army's chief of general staff in place of Ri Myong-su.
Kim's motivation remains unclear, but analysts said the shake-up allows him and the ruling party to tighten control over
the Korean People's Army (KPA) at a critical time of international engagement and domestic development.
'They are loyal to Kim'
"If Kim Jong-un is set on making peace with the U.S. and South Korea and dealing away at least part of the nuclear program, he will have to put the KPA's influence in a box and keep it there," said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization.
"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."
There would be a denuclearization road map coming out of the summit with Trump, and it would be burdensome for Kim to have hawks who could be agitated by any desertion of the nuclear program.- Cheong Seong-chang, Sejong Institute senior fellow
North Korean media had earlier reported that army Gen. Kim Su-gil had succeeded Kim Jong Gak as director of the army's powerful General Political Bureau, one of the most senior positions in the country.
The changes are a shock because they take place so close to each other and come just ahead of the scheduled June 12 summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore.
Some analysts said Kim was replacing older officers who were wedded to the country's nuclear doctrine with loyalists who would follow any changes he may make following the summit.
"There would be a denuclearization roadmap coming out of the summit with Trump, and it would be burdensome for Kim to have hawks who could be agitated by any desertion of the nuclear program," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea's Sejong Institute.
Loyalists put in place
Trump wants North Korea to "denuclearize" in return for relief from economic sanctions. Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons as vital to its survival, but Kim has said he plans to focus on economic development.
The moves are also in line with Kim's years-long efforts to consolidate power by purging senior officers and promoting trusted younger advisers to the politburo and other core positions.
The new officers could also provide some insurance against any attempt to seize power while Kim is away at the summit, experts say.
"All these guys are Kim Jong-un people," said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at Johns Hopkins University's 38 North website. "Kim Jong-un is going to put people in place he can trust, who are loyal to him."
In addition to being hardcore loyalists, Madden said the three officers were experienced in dealing with foreigners, which was seen as a plus point. But it was not immediately clear whether any of them would accompany Kim to Singapore.
Kim Su-gil, 68, is a four-star army general who is one of Kim Jong-un's most trusted aides, accompanying him on various military inspections and public events.
He was among those involved in the purge and execution of Kim Jong-un's powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December 2013.
Then he was tapped to lead the party's Pyongyang chamber in early 2014, a job which Madden said was meant for "housecleaning" the administration of Jang's confidants.
All of the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, even though they are all in their 60s.
The three were also named in May 2016 as alternate members of the ruling Workers' Party politburo — the opaque, all-powerful governing body where top state affairs are decided.
Ri Yong-gil served as chief of staff from 2013 to 2016 until he reportedly fell from grace for a brief period, the analysts said.
In the early 2000s, Ri was commander of an army unit that defends the perimeter around Pyongyang, a sensitive position that Gause said is traditionally "personally selected" by the leader of the country.
No Kwang-chol, the 62-year-old relatively less known new defence chief, previously headed the Second Economic Committee, which oversees defence production including the nuclear and missile programs.
"This is where you would send someone you could trust," said Hong Min, head of North Korea research at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
"No is a person who has come to the fore in the Kim Jong-un era, as an up-and-coming and trusted aide. It is not strange at all if he becomes defence minister."