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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
A senior ranking North Korean army chief that paid an official visit to Cuba in early July – just weeks before Panama intercepted a Cuban arms shipment en-route to North Korea – may have lost his job, a British expert said Friday.
General Kim Kyok Sik, who normally holds the position of Chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff, has not been seen publicly since early August, and did not appear with Kim Jong Un or central military leadership figures at a high profile football match on Wednesday.
“Kim Kyok Sik has not been seen since Aug 3, nearly a month. Yes, that suggests he has been sacked. He went to Cuba of course: maybe he was punished for the Panama fiasco?” veteran North Korea watcher Aidan Foster Carter told NK News.
“Timings suggest that one aim of [Kim’s] visit to Havana may have been to seal the arms shipment deal which has gone so embarrassingly wrong. In Pyongyang, the price of failure is high – or even grim,” Foster-Carter added.
But not only has Kim disappeared from view, he has seemingly also been replaced by two new four-star generals, Ri Yong Gil and Jang Jong Nam, pictures taken at the Wednesday football match show.
Close-up images analyzed by South Korean media on Friday showed Ri Yong Gil and Jang Jong Nam both wearing four stars on their military uniforms, instead of the three they were previously known to wear.
Ri, who holds the position of Chief of the Korean People’s Army General Staff Operations Department – essentially Kim Kyok Sik’s deputy – was listed by state media in Kim’s usual place, next to senior leadership figures Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Song Taek. DPRK media reports are usually meticulous when it comes to listing elite official’s names in order of importance and rank.
Jang Jong Nam, who was promoted to one of Kim’s two posts in May to become Minister of the People’s armed forces, was listed next to Ri.
Together, the news suggests to some observers that Kim Kyong Sik may now have lost both posts to Ri and Jang:
“Now Kim looks to be in the ditch all on his own – following a line of other top KPA figures whose careers have been cut short since Kim Jong-un took over. All four of the top brass who walked to the left of Kim Jong Il’s casket are now either down or out,” Aidan Foster-Carter explained.
The development also followed a rare meeting of North Korea’s top military commissions on “Songun Day”, a newly marked anniversary which took place on Sunday August 22.
At the meeting North Korean state media reported that an unspecified “organizational issue” was discussed, a point that some observers speculated may have been related to forthcoming personnel changes.
Although the evidence points towards a shake-up in the military leadership, it is important to note that Kim Kyok Sik had previously been removed from his position of KPA Chief of General Staff in 2009, and was subsequently reappointed.
Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership specialist, points out that figures disappear from view regularly for lots of reasons and complaines that some observers are too quick to speculate.
“When a senior official goes missing, Pyongyang watchers sometimes assume that the official has been “purged” However this can be a misleading and hasty pronouncement”, Madden wrote on NK News in August.
Kim Kyong Sik replaced Kim Jong Gak as the as the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces in November.
Widely believed to be the military hardliner responsible for the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong, Kim’s short tenure reflects an emerging trend of high-profile military reshuffles following Kim Jong Un’s succession to power.
Additional reporting by Hamish Macdonald in London