Kim Jong-un Consolidates Control of Korean Army

The young North Korean leader puts the party back in control of the military.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a military parade in Pyongyang, April 14
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a military parade in Pyongyang, April 14 (AP/Han Guan)

Kim Jong-un named himself marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the communist country’s state media reported on Wednesday, in a move that is apparently designed to consolidate his control over the army.

The news follows the ouster of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, former army chief of staff, who was considered a Kim ally but recently sidelined because of “illness.” The timing of his departure and Kim’s promotion to the highest military rank in the isolated North Korean regime suggests that Ri was actually purged.

Reports from South Korean media suggest that as many as two hundred army officers have been removed from office since Kim took over from his father Kim Jong-il who died last December. His “military first” doctrine justified a high degree of army involvement in state affairs that appears to have ended with his son. The purges and fact that Choe Ryong-hae — a member of the presidium of the Workers’ Party who was named a vice marshal despite his lack of military experience — has survived them indicate that the party is back in control.

Ri was also a presidium member until this week. Besides Choe and Kim, the body still includes Chairman Kim Yong-nam and Premier Choe Yong-rim, both Kim Jong-il confidantes who are in their eighties and highly unlikely to pose a challenge to the new regime.

The personnel changes at the top of the North Korean hierarchy enable the young ruler, who is estimated to be in his late twenties, to tighten his grip on power but significant changes in policy are not to be expected. There is little indication that Kim Jong-un is a reformer and even if he appears a more relaxed dictator than his father — speaking in public and attending a concert where Western music was played — a steep departure from communist orthodoxy could still invite a challenge to his one man rule.

Ri Yong-ho will likely be replaced by General Hyon Yong-chol who was promoted to the rank of vice marshal but has yet to be named army chief. Hyon is believed to command to the VIII Army Corps which is responsible for defense in the northwest as well the protection of key military sites in the central area of the country, including a missile base near the capital of Pyongyang.