The North Korean regime appears to have sacked the hawkish Army chief in what some pundits see as attempts by young leader Kim Jong-un to bring the unruly military to heel.
Kim Kyok-sik (75) masterminded the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
A South Korean government source said Thursday, "We're closely watching developments in the North, believing that Kim Kyok-sik has been replaced by Ri Yong-gil, the Army's General Staff chief of operations."
The official Rodong Sinmun daily mentioned Ri Yong-gil after senior regime figures Choe Ryong-hae and Jang Song-taek in a report about Kim watching a soccer tournament alongside selected soldiers. It mentioned Ri before Jang Jong-nam, the minister of the People's Armed Forces, while Kim Kyok-sik was not mentioned at all.
Ri was seen with four-star insignia rather than the three stars befitting his previous post.
"Ri seems to have been promoted to chief of the Army's General Staff, because the chief of operations is never mentioned ahead of the Armed Forces minister," the source added.
Kim Kyok-sik's dismissal may have been discussed at a meeting of the Workers Party's Central Military Commission chaired by Kim Jong-un last Sunday. At the time, North Korean media reported that the meeting discussed "organizational matters" and that the leader made an "important decision."
Former leader Kim Jong-il, who invented the disastrous military-first doctrine, held Kim Kyok-sik in high esteem.
Kim Kyok-sik was commander of the 2nd Army Corps, which covers the western frontline area, from 1994 to 2007 and then promoted to Army chief. In February 2009 he was ostensibly demoted but put into aggressive action at the head of the 4th Army Corps, which covers Hwanghae Province and the Northern Limit Line. There he masterminded a naval skirmish in November 2009, the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. In May this year he was made Army chief again after the ouster of his predecessor.
But experts believe Kim Jong-un is more interested than his father in economic development and probably feels he cannot afford a stone-age hawk at the helm of the powerful military if he wants cooperation from South Korea and China.
Chung Sung-jang at the Sejong Institute speculated, "It's likely that Kim Kyok-sik got in the way of Kim Jong-un's attempts to reform the economy, open markets and improve relations with the South."
Kim's ouster will further strengthen the position of Choe Ryong-hae, who is more diplomatically minded and heads the regime's Politburo, experts say.