According to the report by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) monitored in Seoul, Jang Jong-nam, in his 50s, was introduced as minister of the People's Armed Forces during the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Korean People's Internal Security Force that was attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju.
The People's Armed Forces Ministry is equivalent to South Korea's defense ministry and comes under the control of the communist country's powerful National Defense Commission.
Jang Jong-nam (C) was appointed to the minister of the People's Armed Forces to replace hardliner Kim Kyok-sik. (Yonhap file photo)
The KCNA report marks the first time that Pyongyang has acknowledged a change in the top ministerial post. The same news wire service said four days earlier that Kim Kyok-sik attended another state ceremony as armed forces chief.
North Korea experts deemed the 75-year-old Kim as a hardliner within the armed forces due to his involvement in the shelling of a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea in November 2010 and the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel eight months earlier when he was in charge of the 4th Corps in Hwanghae Province on the west coast. He held the ministerial post for about seven months and was a four-star general in the Korean People's Army (KPA).
Jang, on the other hand, was promoted to major general in April 2002 and lieutenant general in November of 2011, and until recently was reported to be the commander of the KPA's 1st Corps in Kangwon Province on the east coast. A photo by the Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, published earlier in the day showed him as a three-star colonel general.
"Jang was considered a member of the junior faction within the military and his sudden emergence may be a sign that the North Korean leadership is seeking a change to younger officers," an expert in Seoul speculated. He said Kim's replacement effectively meant the retirement of most senior officers in their 70s who held key military positions in the past.
The change started with the sacking of the chief of the General Staff of the KPA, Ri Yong-ho (71), and replacing him with Hyon Yong-chol (64) last July. Moreover, the appointment of Choe Ryong-hae (63) to the director of the military General Political Bureau post, the senior most post in the armed forces No. 1, can be seen as an effort to give greater opportunities to younger officers.
He added that Pyongyang may be trying to alleviate the current state of high tension by changing a hardliner with another officer.
The country last week lifted the high state of military readiness it ordered in response to South Korea and the United States conducting the two-month-long Foal Eagle annual military exercise that ended on April 30.
"The latest move could be seen as an attempt to get younger people to exercise more control over military matters," said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. Others, however, said the latest appointments may not necessarily translate into a generation change.
A senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said North Korea has recently changed the commanders of four army corps along the frontline.
The latest reshuffle called attention to a potential generation change in the North Korean military rank under young leader Kim Jong-un.
"Our military is attentively tracing the latest trend of the North Korean military, including replacement of high military ranks," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing. "It needs more analysis to conclude whether (North Korea) has replaced hardliners, but it does seem that military commanders have become really younger."
Another source within the government said the unexpected sacking of Kim for Jang, who is not well known, can be seen as an irregular development. He added that appointing a colonel general to a post held by a vice marshal or four-star officer in the past is out of the ordinary.