North Korea’s young leader has been purging older generals in an attempt to curb the power of the 1.2 million-strong military and potentially open the way for economic reforms, analysts said Thursday.
Kim Jong-Un this week sacked army chief Ri Yong-Ho, 69, and replaced him with a veteran but low-profile field commander, Hyon Yong-Chol, who is believed to be in his early 60s.
Kim Jong-Un, in his late 20s, has also been made “marshal” of North Korea, a title previously held by his late father Kim Jong-Il and his grandfather, the communist country’s founding father Kim Il-Sung.
The young leader has been removing other aged powerful figures from his father’s era, including former armed forces minister Kim Yong-Chun and U Dong-Chuk who ran the secret police, analysts said.
Ri was appointed chief of the general staff by Kim Jong-Il and played a key role in helping his son take over the reins of the communist dynasty.
But the young Kim seems to have seen the hot-headed heavyweight as an obstacle to his plans to rein in the military, whose power had grown out of all proportion under the “Songun”, or military-first, policy of his father, analysts said.
The youthful leader also inherited an economy in ruins after decades of Stalinist mismanagement and a malnourished population dependent on foreign food aid.
Educated in the West, Kim Jong-Un is seen as more receptive to undertaking sweeping reforms to open up the crumbling state-directed economy than was his late father.
Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute said having tightened his grip on power over the past seven months, Kim Jong-Un was now in a better position “to take measures for economic reform and openness”.
“The measures will be aimed at allowing private profit-seeking activities in commerce and trade and introduce greater incentives to state-controlled businesses and collective farms to increase production,” Cheong said.
In his first public speech in April this year, Kim Jong-Un said the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea was “firmly resolved” to improve people’s livelihood so that “they don’t have to tighten their belt again”.
China, the North’s main benefactor, has repeatedly urged it to open up and has reportedly started providing economic training for North Korean officials.
Kim Keun-Sik of Kyungnam University said Ri’s “symbolic” dismissal came as the leadership was paring down the massive military in favour of the private sector.
“Jong-Un was cementing his control over the military and seeking to return the bloated military to a normal state,” he said.
Cho Han-Bum at the state Korea Institute for National Unification said the North may use Ri as a scapegoat for recent provocative acts as its seeks massive foreign aid to improve its people’s livelihood.
Ri was army chief when the North allegedly sank a South Korean warship in 2010, shelled a South Korean island the same year and conducted a failed long-range missile test in April this year.
Cho said his departure would set off a sweeping reshuffle within the military.
“This is only the beginning. Jong-Un faces a formidable task to sweep aside scores of military generals and officials and fill their posts with young loyalists,” he said.
“Naturally, there will be moans and grumbles. For these veteran soldiers, Jong-Un is a young baron whose star rose too fast. They don’t feel indebted to him, although they did toward Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il.”
Cho said securing his grip on the military would be Kim Jong-Un’s priority before he can think about starting on the road to reform.
“Economic reforms seem to be a luxury for the regime. It faces a far bigger, lingering problem of how to put the restless military under control and avoid any political upheavals in the future,” he said.
The young leader, who lacks his late father’s political shrewdness, relies heavily on his aunt Kim Kyong-Hui and her husband Jang Song-Thaek in ruling the country, Cho and other analysts agreed.
Jang commands the police and spy agencies and serves as first vice chair of the powerful National Defence Commission chaired by Kim Jong-Un. He is known to be a reformer and is deeply interested in a market-style economy.
Baek Seung-Joo of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses said Ri’s departure would usher in a remarkable change in the North’s political map, with reform-minded administrators led by Jang winning over military hardliners.
“A favourable atmosphere is being laid in the North for reform and openness,” Baek told AFP.