North Korea recently appointed Kim Jong Gwan as its new defense minister, party daily the Rodong Sinmun revealed on Wednesday, amid an ongoing broader personnel reshuffle of some of the country’s top military and diplomatic positions.
Kim Jong Gwan previously served as vice minister of the People’s Armed Forces and an Army lieutenant general: a two-star military rank in North Korea.
News of his promotion came in a report on a Tuesday meeting of officials in the field of forest restoration and land and environment protection, in which he was referred to as “Army General Kim Jong Gwan, minister of the People’s Armed Forces.”
While that reporting suggests that No Kwang Chol, the previous minister of the People’s Armed Forces, has stepped down from his post, it remains to be seen whether he has been promoted, demoted, or has simply retired.
No had served as the DPRK’s defense minister since June 2018, and was last referred to as holding the ministerial position in late October last year.
His replacement, Kim Jong Gwan, first appeared in state media in December 2013.
Appointed vice defense minister in June 2014, he appears to have closely involved in military-led construction works — the most recent being the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area and Yangdok Hot Springs Resort — appearing in state media alongside Kim Jong Un during the DPRK leader’s on-site inspections of those two projects.
Hints that he may have been promoted first emerged in state media coverage of December’s high-profile party plenum, when his name appeared before that of Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff chief Pak Jong Chon in a list of officials elected as alternate members of the Central Committee’s Political Bureau.
Kim Jong Gwan was also listed among officials on the state funeral committee for the late anti-Japanese revolutionary fighter Hwang Sun Hui last week, with the former minister No Kwang Chol notably absent from that list.
The revelation of Kim Jong Gwan’s appointment comes amid a broader reshuffle among North Korea’s top elite, which last month saw Ri Pyong Chol — previously the party’s Munitions Industry Department first vice director — and Pak Jong Chon promoted to the Political Bureau.
But while South Korean media had often referred to former defense minister No as a “soft-liner,” one expert stressed that Kim Jong Gwan’s recent appointment was more notable given his background in state construction works.
“The most striking aspect of Kim Jong Gwan’s appointment as minister of People’s Armed Forces is that Kim has had a long track record of being associated with major construction projects,” says Rachel Minyoung Lee, senior analyst with NK Pro, NK News’s sister site.
“I think the key message of Kim’s appointment is that the military will play a bigger role in national construction projects from now on, and that the MPAF will spearhead that effort,” she added.
These personnel shuffles and the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces’s increased focus on construction projects likely tie in with the “discussion of reorganization issues” reported to have taken place at last month’s Central Military Commission expanded meeting, she explained.
Another expert suggested Kim Jong Gwan was being “rewarded for his role in overseeing construction projects of particular importance” to the North Korean leadership — and to shore up the country “new path” underlined by the leadership at December’s plenum.
“[It’s] a general shakeup to put in place the men who’ll do the best job executing on the new national strategy,” Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told NK News.
“No Kwang Chol’s performance may not be have been per expectations too, it would seem.”
NK Pro analyst Lee, however, said that the new shake-up should not necessarily be read as meaning that the North Korean military is shifting focus.
“Having a construction-focused minister of People’s Armed Forces does not mean the North Korean military’s focus has shifted from military affairs to the economy,” she said. “There is the MPAF, and there is the KPA. The KPA General Staff chief is Pak Jong Chon, former head of the KPA Artillery Bureau.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham