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2009/02/12 11:05 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 41 (February 12, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il Names New Defense Minister

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il named new military chiefs on Feb. 11, the country's state-run media reported, in an earlier-than-expected shake-up ahead of parliamentary elections amid heightened tension with South Korea.

   In a brief report, the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Kim Yong-chun, vice marshal of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), was appointed as minister of the People's Armed Forces of the National Defense Commission (NDC). The position is thought to be equivalent to defense minister.

   Kim, 73, is believed to be one of the closest aides to the North Korean leader. He graduated from Kimilsung Military University in Pyongyang and the Frunze Military Academy of the Soviet Union, according to data from Seoul's unification ministry. He has served as vice chairman of the NDC since 2007.

   The KCNA also said General Ri Yong-ho has been appointed as chief of the KPA General Staff, equivalent to South Korea's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Little is known about Ri except that he once served as chief of Pyongyang Defense Command.

   Notably, the appointments were carried out following a decision by the NDC and the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK).

   "A decision of the NDC and the Central Military Commission of the WPK was released on Feb. 11 in the name of Kim Jong-il, chairman of the NDC and chairman of the WPK Central Military Commission," the KCNA said.

   It is unusual for North Korea to announce military shake-ups. Seoul analysts have largely forecast that Pyongyang would reshuffle its military after its parliamentary vote on March 8 and before the founding anniversary of the KPA on April 25.

   The parliamentary elections are long-overdue. Pyongyang bypassed the vote last August, when lawmakers' five-year terms ended, amid rumors that Kim Jong-il had suffered a stroke. The January scheduling of the vote appeared to be a sign of business in Pyongyang returning to normal, with Kim back in control.

   A new assembly is expected to reappoint leader Kim as chairman of the NDC, the backbone of the North's 1.1 million-strong army. His reappointment is usually followed by military and Cabinet reshuffles.

   Baek Seung-joo, a North Korea specialist with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a state-run think tank in Seoul, said the shakeup could be part of preparations for a post-Kim Jong-il era.

   Military tension along the inter-Korean border has been high in recent weeks, with North Korea threatening military clashes and declaring a 1991 non-aggression accord void.

   Intelligence sources say North Korea appears to be preparing to test-launch a long-range missile. Some analysts say the move is aimed at pressuring Seoul into dropping its hardline policy and drawing the attention of the new U.S. government.

   It is not clear why Pyongyang chose to conduct the reshuffle at such a sensitive time.

   "The North could be sorting out its power elite, It could also be part of preparations for the post-Kim Jong-il era," Baek said.

   The North Korean leader turns 67 on Feb. 16. Speculation is mounting over who he will name as his successor, though it is likely to be one of his three sons.

   Also on Feb. 11, Kim Jong-il was accompanied by Kim Yong-chun and Ri Yong-ho on his inspection of Unit No. 681 of the KPA Artillery Command, according to the KCNA.

   The news agency said, "Kim Jong-il was accompanied by KPA Vice Marshal Kim Yong-chun, minister of the People's Armed Forces of the NDC of the DPRK (North Korea), and KPA General Ri Yong-ho, chief of the KPA General Staff."