The North Korean regime is purging senior military and party officials. In the Workers' Party, the heads of the financial and economic sections have been sacked over the disastrous currency reform and international sanctions, and in the military, officers in their 70s and 80s from the era of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung are making way for younger military leaders in their 50s and 60s.
◆ Party Purges
In the Workers' Party, three key economic figures have been replaced. Finance Director Pak Nami-gi was apparently axed on Jan 20, taking the fall for the failed currency revaluation late last year. "Room 39" bureau director Kim Tong-un was recently replaced by his deputy Jon Il-chun after having managed the regime's secret coffers for 36 years. A source says that Kim Tong-un was replaced because he was put under a personal travel ban by the EU in December last year and it was difficult for him to manage overseas funds for the North Korean leader.
Han Kwang-sang was apparently promoted from first deputy of the finance and accounting department to head, which has been vacant for a long time. The department is in charge of managing party funds. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il last month tapped Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong-il, who is familiar with Chinese affairs and served as the chief negotiator to the six-way nuclear talks, as the head of the party's department for international affairs. An intelligence officer in Seoul says the appointment of Kim Yong-il is likely related to the international sanctions, which were imposed after the North conducted its second nuclear test.
◆ Military Rejuvenation
Several military leaders in their 70s and 80s have disappeared from the scene due to old age and chronic disease, including Marshal Ri Ul-sol; Jo Myong-rok, director of the Army's General Political Bureau; and Ri Yong-mu, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. They have been in the military since the era of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung. Defense Minister Kim Yong-chun has also not been seen in public for more than two months, apparently due to ill health. He had been the chief of the Army's General Staff for more than 10 years after Kim Jong-il succeeded his father.
Rising military leaders are Gen. Ri Yong-ho, the current chief of the Army's General Staff, and Kim Jong-gak, vice-director of the Army's general political department. Both are, though not exactly youthful, in their 60s. A North Korea source says Ri is an artillery expert and may have been behind North Korea's recent firing of artillery shells into waters near the maritime border in the West Sea. Baek Seung-joo, chief of the Center for Security and Strategy at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, says, "Many North Korean military officers in their 50s and 60s were assigned to the general political department, which checks the loyalty of the military to the North Korean leader." They will play an important role in consolidating the succession to the heir apparent Kim Jong-un, he added.
◆ Managing Discontent and the Succession
Analysts say that the party purges are an attempt to appease growing popular discontent after the failed currency reform led to skyrocketing prices, while the replacement of top brass is a move to prepare for the succession. Dongguk University professor Kim Yong-hyun says, "To ease public dissatisfaction with the currency revaluation, North Korea needs to replace financial officials responsible and adopt a new policy." Given that the priority that the North puts on the military, the military reshuffle may be aimed at laying the foundation for heir apparent Kim Jong-un to take power. A North Korean source says Kim Jong-un has a post in the Defense Commission and is exercising his influence over personnel changes in the military.