SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Korea has replaced its hard line military chief just a few months after his appointment, the latest in an ongoing reshuffle of top personnel that analysts say is meant to solidify ruler Kim Jong Un’s grip on power.
The name of new military chief, Ri Yong Gil, was revealed Thursday in a Korean Central News Agency dispatch listing top officials who accompanied Kim Jong Un to the mausoleum housing his father and grandfather.
Ri replaces Kim Kyok Sik, the former commander of battalions believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 people. It was only in May that state media dispatches first identified Kim as the military’s general chief of staff.
Observers believe Ri may have been appointed to replace Kim as early as August, when North Korea was pushing to ease animosity and resume lucrative cooperation projects with South Korea after threatening nuclear war throughout the spring.
Little is known about Ri except that he served as commander of a frontline army corps and a top operation officer at the general staff. It’s not known what happened to the replaced Kim.
“We cannot say Ri is not a hard-liner, but Kim Kyok Sik has a reputation for taking an extraordinarily hard line on South Korea,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
He said it “would be burdensome” for North Korea to keep Kim in charge of the army when it was trying to improve ties with the outside world.
Kim Jong Un has frequently replaced top government, ruling party and military officials since taking power following the December 2011 death of his father. Analysts say he wants to install new figures loyal to him in key posts. Ri is Kim’s fourth general staff chief in less than two years.
“The fact that he can frequently replace the top army officer shows he has a firm control over the military,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
One of the most notable personnel changes Kim oversaw was the firing of military chief Ri Yong Ho, who was once dubbed as Kim’s mentor. State media said he was dismissed in July 2012 due to an unspecified illness but analysts speculated Ri was purged as Kim was trying to reshape the government.
Nearly half of about 220 top government, Workers’ Party and military officials have been replaced since Kim took power, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
On Thursday, North Korea marked the 68th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party, with leader Kim paying respect to his late father and grandfather at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang.
South Korea, the U.S. and Japan on Thursday began two days of naval drills aimed at improving readiness for maritime disasters. Pyongyang earlier called the drills a military confrontation and said its troop were ready to repel any enemy provocation.