North Korea's hawkish Gen. Kim Kyok-sik has been named army chief, while his predecessor Hyon Yong-chol has apparently been moved to the 5th Corps in the central region. The equally hawkish Kim Yong-chol, the director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, has apparently been appointed vice army chief.
Kim Kyok-sik was in charge of troops on the western coast during a naval skirmish in November 2009, in March 2010 when the North sank the Navy corvette Cheonan, and when it shelled Yeonpyeong Island later that year.
Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was fond of the general's belligerent ways and described him as a "fighter." Intelligence reports after the inauguration of former President Lee Myung-bak warned that Kim Kyok-sik had been appointed to lead a provocation against the South, but Seoul failed to heed the warning.
It cannot afford to repeat that mistake.
Hyon Yong-chol and Kim Yong-chol are also known to be hawks. Hyon’s appointment from chief military strategist to frontline commander may appear to be a demotion, but he may have been given a special mission, just as Kim Kyok-sik was under Kim Jong-il.
All key command positions in North Korea are now occupied by hawks. The North Korea is trapped in a dilemma where it cannot afford to continue its belligerent rhetoric but would lose face if it stopped its aggressive behavior. Seoul must realize that Pyongyang could consider a military option to get out of this rut.
Another alarm signal is that North Korean top brass are being reshuffled at a dizzying rate. The reshuffle, which began with the sacking of Army chief Ri Yong-ho in July of 2012, has seen three chiefs being replaced since new leader Kim Jong-un came to power a year and a half ago.
The appointments have been unusual. Kim Kyok-sik, Hyon Yong-chol and Kim Yong-chol were suddenly demoted and then somehow regained their positions.
The North Korean military is a state within the state and has a rigid hierarchy. Kim Jong-un may be attempting to put people he trusts in key positions, but that is apt to foment discontent in the military, on which his regime's survival depends. North Korean soldiers are constantly being monitored by the thought police, but if officers feel they are being pushed to the edge and no longer have faith in their leader, there is no telling what may happen next.