SEOUL: North Korea has replaced its hardline defence minister with a little-known army general, according to a state media report on Monday, in what outside analysts call an attempt to install a younger figure meant to solidify leader Kim Jong Un’s grip on the powerful military.
Jang Jong Nam’s appointment is the latest move since Kim succeeded his late father in late 2011 that observers see as a young leader trying to consolidate control. The announcement comes amid easing animosities after weeks of warlike threats between the rivals, including North Korean vows of nuclear strikes.
Pyongyang’s rhetorical outbursts against massive US-South Korean war drills and UN sanctions over the North’s February nuclear test were seen, in part, as a push to portray Kim at home as a respected military commander on the world stage.
Jang’s new role as minister of the People’s Armed Forces, however, isn’t thought to indicate a potential softening of Pyongyang’s stance toward Seoul and Washington any time soon, analysts said. Jang replaces Kim Kyok Sik, the former commander of battalions believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.
Outsiders don’t know much about Jang, but analysts said it’s unlikely that Kim Jong Un would name a moderate to the post at a time of tension with the outside world.
Mention of Jang’s new role was buried in a state media dispatch listing those who attended an art performance with the young leader. It’s not known exactly when Jang was formally appointed to the ministerial post.
The announcement coincided with the beginning Monday of US-South Korean naval exercises involving a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier. North Korea has criticised the carrier’s inclusion in the two-day drills, which it claims are preparations for an invasion of the North.
Also, when tensions peaked in March, Washington took the unusual step of announcing that nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers had participated in the earlier, larger-scale joint drills between the allies. North Korea regularly cites the powerful US nuclear arsenal and Washington’s deployment of those assets in the region as justification for its own pursuit of nuclear weapons.