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North Korea confirms new defense chief amid leadership shake-up

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (COURTESY OF KCNA)
January 23, 2020

North Korea confirmed Wednesday that an official who has overseen leader Kim Jong Un’s pet construction projects has been named the nuclear-armed country’s new defense minister.

The official Korean Central News Agency referred to army Gen. Kim Jong Gwan, who had been the North’s vice defense chief, as the “minister of the People’s Armed Forces” in a dispatch about a meeting on forest restoration and environmental protection.

Kim Jong Gwan succeeds No Kwang Chol, and is known for having supervised large-scale construction projects that have been repeatedly played up in state-run media by the North Korean leader. These include a sprawling beach resort in the eastern coastal city of Wonsan and hot spring facilities in the central alpine town of Yangdok.

Speculation had swirled over the promotion after the North said that it had carried out a major leadership reshuffle during a four-day plenary session of the ruling party’s Central Committee late last year.

State media reported at the time that Kim Jong Gwan was elected as an alternate member of the powerful politburo, publishing a photo of him wearing the insignia of the four-star rank, but did not provide details of any promotion.

It was unclear what the promotion could mean, but Kim Jong Un visited the Yangdok spa resort multiple times last year, highlighting his determination to build a competitive tourism industry despite crippling international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

KCNA said in a separate report Wednesday that the site had begun operations Jan. 10, calling the resort the “fruition of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s love for the people as it was built thanks to his noble intention to provide them with better cultured life.”

The revelation of Kim’s promotion came just days after the North appointed a former military officer as its new foreign minister, media reports quoted diplomatic sources as saying, in an apparent major shift that could significantly impact the country’s diplomatic stance after 18 months of nuclear talks with the U.S.

The North reportedly notified nations with which it has diplomatic ties that Ri Son Gwon, former head of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, which oversees relations with South Korea, had succeeded Ri Yong Ho, a veteran diplomat who had served as foreign minister since 2016.

Ri Yong Ho had served as the country’s top diplomat as Pyongyang embarked on a series of unprecedented diplomatic initiatives, accompanying Kim Jong Un during summits with U.S., South Korean, Russian and Chinese leaders over the last two years.

He also had a visible role as a top spokesperson, holding a news conference after leader Kim Jong Un’s second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump collapsed in Hanoi last February.

The news comes just weeks after Kim Jong Un expressed deep frustrations in a recent key policy speech ahead of the new year over the stalled nuclear negotiations with Washington and vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against “gangster-like” U.S. sanctions and pressure.

He also declared that his country is no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, while also warning of a “new strategic weapon” that he vowed to soon reveal to the world.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in an interview last week that the United States has attempted to contact North Korea in a bid to restart deadlocked nuclear talks. But senior North Korean officials have warned that the country will return to talks only when Washington fully accepts its opaque demands.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence official with decades of experience researching the country who is now at the Stimson Center think tank, said Ri Yong Ho’s presence “made no discernible difference to Pyongyang’s approach” from at least last April through the December ruling party meeting.

“The question is not will the North shut down dialogue under the new foreign minister,” Carlin wrote Tuesday on the 38 North blog. “It’s already done that, and Kim Jong Un’s plenum speech made clear he’s in no mood to get back to the table for a while.

“The real question is going to be whether or how much worse things will get, and by itself, the appointment of the new foreign minister doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know,” he added.


© 2020 the Japan Times