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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Replaces Hawkish Defense Chief with Younger, Little-known General

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In an apparent move for a generational shift, North Korea has replaced its hard-line armed forces minister with a relatively "young" and unknown field commander, a news report said on May 13.

   The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) introduced Jang Jong-nam, in his 50s, as the minister of the People's Armed Forces to replace hard-liner Kim Kyok-sik, in a move that may also signal a shift in the country's confrontational policies.

   In the KCNA report, Jang was introduced as the defense chief during the Song and Dance Ensemble of the (North) Korean People's Internal Security Force that was attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju.

   The report focused on the leader's visit to the performance without specifying when Jang was appointed minister or giving a profile of him. The People's Armed Forces Ministry is equivalent to South Korea's defense ministry.

   It was the first time the North's state media had mentioned Jang as the head of the organization under the National Defense Commission, a powerful state body that executes key military and national projects.

   Jang replaced Kim Kyok-sik who came to the post just six months ago. Kim, 75, is known to be a hawkish commander that led a set of provocations against the South, such as the sinking of the corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, when he was in charge of the 4th Corps in Hwanghae Province on the west coast.

   The KCNA report came unexpectedly as Kim was seen holding the ministerial post until earlier this month. The KCNA mentioned Kim as the minister of the People's Armed Forces on May 4 when he attended a concert marking the country's Labor Day.

   Jang was promoted to a one-star general in April 2002 and a two-star general in April of 2011, and until recently was reported to be the commander of the (North) Korean People's Army's (KPA's) 1st Corps in charge of defending the front-line area in the North's Kangwon Province on the east coast.

   A photo by Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of (North) Korea, published earlier in the day showed him as a three-star colonel general.

   Last December, Jang was seen delivering a speech to pay allegiance to the North Korean leader during a military convention at a square in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, where the embalmed bodies of North Korea's founding leader Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il lie in state.

   The Ministry of the People's Armed Forces is a high-level institution along with other military bodies such as the KPA's General Political Bureau and the General Staff of the KPA, the equivalent of Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

   "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 generational change started in April last year with the appointment of Choe Ryong-hae, 63, to the director of the KPA's General Political Bureau post, the most influential post in the armed forces. Choe is a longtime aide to the Kim dynasty.

   In July last year, Pyongyang abruptly sacked the chief of the General Staff of the KPA, Ri Yong-ho, 71, and replacing him with Hyon Yong-chol, 64.

   Choe Ryong-hae's appointment to the important military post was unexpected as he had not been military officer previously. He replaced veteran army official Kim Jong-gak, 72. Kim was one of the seven power elite members who accompanied the hearse of late leader Kim Jong-il during his funeral in December 2011.

   The General Political Bureau is seen as more influential as it leads the crucial personnel management of other military bodies such as the Ministry of People's Armed Forces.

   The expert added that Pyongyang may be trying to alleviate the current state of high tensions by replacing 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.

   A senior government official in Seoul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said North Korea has recently changed the commanders of four army corps along the front-line.

   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 trends in the North Korean military, including replacement of high ranking military officers," Seoul's defense 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 younger."

   Another source within the government said the unexpected sacking of Kim for Jang 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.

   When the KCNA reported Kim Jong-un's visit to Unhasu Orchestra on May 4, Jang Jong-nam was sitting next to Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle and guardian of Kim Jong-un. Sources in Seoul said the new defense minister is a member of a junior circle in the North Korean People's Army.

   In December, North Korea held a military rally in front of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where a series of North Korean commanders swore their loyalty to the leader. The state media revealed their names and positions at the time.

   In his oath, Jang said he would "wait for the order from the supreme commander Kim Jong-un for the ultimate attack" on the enemy.

   With the appointment of the new defense minister, all of the men in North Korea's key military posts are younger than 70, considered young for North Korean politics.

   Experts said that the new personnel change is a signal to introduce the military's generational change and an indication that the shakeup of the upper military echelons was still ongoing to strengthen its leader Kim Jong-un's grip over the armed forces.

   Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the appointment of Jang as defense minister appeared to be part of a generational shift in the top brass.

   "The frequent military reshuffles could be designed to elicit the loyalty of military leaders to the dynastic ruler," Yang added.

   Despite its effectiveness, North Korea's military-first or "songun" politics appears to have been undergoing some changes under Kim Jong-un. Under the military-first politics, the late leader Kim Jong-il placed the army over all others in ruling the socialist country for nearly 18 years.

   But Kim Jong-un has placed more emphasis on the role of the civilian sector rather than the once-invincible military, which had formerly been the backbone of North Korea's power base.

   The Swiss-educated leader has apparently been placing economic specialists in powerful positions, while sacking or demoting some hardliners who spearheaded his late father's military-first policy.

   The contraction of the military's role appears to be conspicuous since the purge of powerful military figure Ri Yong-ho and some personnel changes in the military elite.

   Analysts explain that Ri was fired due to a disproportionate surge in power and his political ineptness to respond to the new dynamics. He was also reportedly reluctant or unwilling to support the implementation of the new leader's plan to transfer the major economic role from the military to the Cabinet.

   Since taking the reins, the younger Kim has challenged the military's iron grip on the country and begun restructuring the socialist state's economic strategy.