North Korean leader Kim Jong-il recently made a reshuffle of his top military officials that may solidify his already firm grip on the country’s military, intelligence officials said Monday.
Ri Myong-su, former operations director of the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA), has been named a resident member of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the highest decision-making body under the communist nation’s constitution that was revised in 1997 to reflect its military first, or “songun,” policy, an official said while speaking anonymously.
Ri was replaced by Kim Myong-guk, who had served in the post from 1994-1997, while Jong Thae-gun, an Army lieutenant general, has been named the propaganda director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, according to the sources.
The reshuffle first appeared to be a routine rearrangement of personnel, but the sources said it may have been aimed at expanding the role and power of the already powerful NDC.
“The NDC seems to have become, at least externally, the North’s highest decision-making body as a number of top military officials have recently been appointed to (new) permanent posts of the defense commission,” a source said.
“We believe the NDC may become an actual organization in the near future with hundreds of resident staff like the other top decision-making bodies” such as the Workers’ Party, the official added.
Headed by the North’s reclusive leader, the defense commission has been the most powerful organization in the country where the military comes before everything.
But it has mostly been regarded as a faction of a group, namely the KPA, as most of its members concurrently served in other posts of the army, according to the sources.
Kim Yong-chun, the former Chief of General Staff of the KPA, was named the first deputy chairman of the NDC in April.
The sources said it is too early to determine why the commission’s permanent staff has been increased, but they said it may be linked to Pyongyang’s ruling system after Kim Jong-il.
The 65-year-old Kim has yet to name his successor, raising questions worldwide whether the reclusive leader is considering a collective ruling system after his death.
Kim was named as successor to his father, the founder of North Korea Kim Il-sung, at the age of 32 in 1974.
He has three sons from two marriages, but his oldest son, Jong-nam, 35, has apparently fallen out of favor following a 2001 incident in which the junior Kim was thrown out of Japan after trying to enter the country with a forged passport.
His two other sons, Jong-chul and Jong-un, both in their early 20s, have not held any official posts.
N. Korea enhances Kim’s defense commission
North Korea is beefing up the National Defense Commission, a top military decision-making body directly controlled by Kim Jong-il, Seoul intelligence sources said.
Pyongyang recently conducted a major reshuffle of its top military leadership, including the repositioning of Kim’s closest confidants to the committee, they said on condition of anonymity.
Chaired by Kim, the committee is an organization independent of the Cabinet and the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. It is next only to the communist country’s president, a post permanently held by the late founder and Kim’s father Kim Il-sung since his death in 1994.
The sources said that Gen. Ri Myong-su, former operation director of the Korean People’s Army, has been appointed as a standing member of the NDC. Gen. Kim Myong-kuk has been named to replace Ri as the top operations commander.
The reshuffle followed the appointment of Vice-Marshal Kim Yong-chun, former chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army, as vice chairman of the NDC during last month’s general session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the nation’s parliament.
The personnel reconfiguration, which also affected key posts in the North Korean armed forces, is seen as part of Pyongyang’s move to further enhance the NDC, a powerful state body, under North Korea’s military-first policy.
The generals have been regarded as the most influential figures in the military as they frequently accompany Kim during his field unit inspections.
The commission has the power to direct all activities of the armed forces and national defense projects, establish and disband central defense institutions, appoint and dismiss senior military officers, confer military titles and grant titles for top commanders. It also can declare a state of war and issue mobilization orders in an emergency.
The National Defense Commission, presently chaired by Kim Jong-il, consists of the first deputy chairman, two deputy chairmen and six commission members. All members are selected for a five-year term.
The reshuffles are the latest known change to the commission. Gen. Hyon Chol-hae, former vice director of the KPA General Political Bureau, moved to the post of NDC vice director in 2003.
Experts noted that the figures are taking full-time posts in the NDC and relinquishing their posts in the People’s Army.
Other current members concurrently hold posts at both organizations, sources said.
Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok, the first vice-chairman of the NDC, also assumes the position of director of the KPA General Political Bureau. Vice Marshal Kim Il-chol concurrently serves as a member of the NDC and minister of the People’s Armed Forces.
“As high-ranking military officers have moved to the NDC as full-time members, the NDC may be preparing to take follow up measures to expand its role and function in the future,” the sources said.
The NDC has been known as a consultative body of top military leaders without extensive subordinate organizations comparable to the ruling party and the Cabinet.
The intelligence sources said the NDC may have more manpower and organization under its wing.
“The NDC began equipping itself with organizational apparatuses with the 2003 transfer of Hyon Chol-hae from the KPA position to the post of NDC,” another source said.
In addition, the NDC has continued recruiting personnel such as Kim Yang-gon, councilor of the NDC, from other government departments, to strengthen the NDC’s policy functions, sources said.
“It is in line with North Korea’s long-term move to concentrate the country’s decision-making power on Kim Jong-il and his close subordinates,” said Nam Sung-wook, North Korean studies professor at Korea University. “It is mainly aimed at preventing possible regime dissolution amid rising international pressures over its nuclear weapons program. Kim is also seen directly intervening in a resolution of the nuclear issue.”
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk Univsersity, also agreed that the enhancement of the NDC will lead to the centralization of power in North Korea, reducing the role of the Korea Workers’ Party.
“Through the organizational reform, the North’s regime seeks to further streamline decision-making procedures to more effectively tackle an array of issues,” Kim said.
The North Korean studies expert said it is an answer of North Korean leadership to continuing economic hardship. The leadership has given over a comparatively extensive amount of power to the Cabinet for dealing with economic stagnation.
Kim also said it could be interpreted as preparation for the post-Kim Jong-il system.
“After his death, a collective leadership led by core subordinates of Kim Jong-il is expected to emerge, so, the move could be one related to future changes,” he said.