North Korean Defense Minister Kim Jong-gak has been sacked as part of a major shakeup at the top of the powerful North Korean military, officials here said Thursday.
"Kim Jong-un has been replacing key military officials based on their loyalty to him," a high-ranking Cheong Wa Dae official said. Kim Kyok-sik, who orchestrated the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of 2010, has now replaced Kim Jong-gak as chief of the Ministry of the People's Armed Force.
Kim Jong-gak had been defense minister for only seven months and was seen as a close confidant of the new leader.
His ouster means that four high-ranking military officials who accompanied Kim Jong-un last December in escorting the hearse of his father Kim Jong-il have either been sacked or relegated to minor posts.
Kim Jong-un is apparently engaged in a struggle to seize control of the military, which ballooned into a state within a state under his father’s songun or military-first doctrine.
Former Army chief Ri Yong-ho, the highest-ranking among the four, was stripped of all posts last July and is believed to be under house arrest in a remote region. Kim Yong-chun, the defense minister at the time of Kim senior's death, was replaced by Kim Jong-gak in April and demoted to a minor post within the Workers Party. Now Kim Jong-gak too is gone.
And U Dong-chuk, the first deputy director of the State Security Department, disappeared from public view after participating in centenary celebrations for nation founder Kim Il-sung on Feb. 16.
When Kim Jong-un was anointed as his father's successor in January 2009, the four officers were handpicked to groom the young leader. But all were close confidants of Kim Jong-il. One government official here said Kim junior is trying to "erase all traces of his father's rule" 11 months after stepping into power and "replacing top brass with officers who are loyal to him alone."
Kim Jong-gak had led day-to-day operations of the powerful National Defense Commission while its first vice chairman Cho Myong-rok was mortally ill in 2010 and rose even further in September that year. In February this year, just after Kim Jong-un was officially declared leader, Kim Jong-gak was promoted to vice marshal, and two months later to defense minister.
But he has not been seen in public since the opening of a soft-drink store in Pyongyang on Oct. 30. "Kim Jong-gak had been under a lot of criticism recently for being only intent on maintaining his position and failing to do his job properly," said one intelligence official here.
Kim Kyok-sik, the new defense minister, once the army chief, was demoted in February of 2009 to corps commander overseeing the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border separating the two Koreas. Under his command, the North triggered a naval skirmish along the NLL in November 2009, sank the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and shelled Yeonpyeong Island in November that year.
Even so, Kim Kyok-sik was demoted to a three-star general for his apparent failure to deal effectively with Seoul's responses after the shelling of Yeonpyeong, but his recent appearance with four-star insignia raised speculation here that he has been promoted to a higher post.