Kim Jong-un appears to be tightening his grip over North Korea’s military.
This week, North Korean state media reported that Kim Jong-un recently convened the third meeting of the battalion commanders and political instructors of the Korean People’s Army. The meeting appeared aimed at least in part at strengthening the Workers’ Party of Korea’s control over the military.
The meeting was said to be held on October 3 and 4 of this year, a time in which Kim hadn’t been seen in public for weeks on end.
Similarly, earlier this year Kim Jong-un ordered the mass demotions of many officers within the North Korean military, the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun reported on November 3.
According to Mainichi, Kim Jong-un was dissatisfied with an artillery corps under KPA Unit 681 that he inspected back in April. As a result, the unit was disbanded, and 167 military officials were demoted. Mainichi’s report was based on a story that appeared in the North Korean state publication, the Korean People’s Army Magazine.
The names and demotions of all the officers were published in the magazine, publicly humiliating them. The commander of KPA Unit 313, which Unit 681 is a part of, was demoted two whole ranks.
According to an earlier report by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim Jong-un had blamed Unit 681’s failings on its lack of training under combat-like conditions.
According to KCNA, Kim said that “there are among some commanding officers practices of sending soldiers for other purposes and attaching less importance to the training. Of course, they might do sideline jobs for improving the living of service personnel and do their bit in building a rich and powerful nation as well. However, they should always give priority to making combat preparations.”
He in particularly blamed the party committee of the unit.
This led many in South Korea to conclude that Kim’s criticism was actually aimed at Choe Ryong Hae, who at the time was the Director of the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) General Political Department (GPD). Soon after, Vice Marshal Choe was replaced in that position by Hwang Pyong So, who is now widely viewed as North Korea’s number 2. Many speculated that Kim Jong-un had felt threatened by Choe’s growing power within the party.
However, Jeong Seong-jang, chief researcher at the South Korean Sejong Institute, said in May that the decision to replace Choe actually demonstrated how much Kim valued Choe, since Kim could’ve gotten rid of the vice marshal altogether given Choe’s declining health. Instead, Kim gave him a position with less stress and responsibilities, indicating that he wanted to keep him around.
As Jeong pointed out, Choe has since returned to the corridors of power. In fact, he was one of the three senior officials who recently visited South Korea. According to Jeong, this shows that Choe still maintains a high status in North Korea. There have also been uncofirmed reports that Choe has been promoted to Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the position Kim Jong-un’s aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, used to hold.
Meanwhile, Satoru Miyamoto, a professor at Seigakuin University in Japan, told Mainichi that Kim Jong-un seems to be confident about suppressing any possible resistance from the military since it was the first time for North Korea to disband a unit and demote so many officers in such a public manner.