SEOUL: North Korea has named a new army vice marshal, state media said Tuesday, as part of a reshuffle apparently aimed at tightening young leader Kim Jong-Un's grip on the communist state's powerful military.
Hyon Yong-Chol, a veteran field commander, was awarded “the title of vice marshal of the Korean People's Army”, one of four people in the North to hold the rank, said Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Analysts said Hyon was highly likely to become head of the 1.2-million-strong military, taking over from Vice Marshal Ri Yong-Ho, the chief of the general staff, who was relieved of all his posts on Sunday.
Hyon became a general in September 2010 along with five others including new leader Kim Jong-Un and his aunt Kim Kyong-Hui.
“Hyon is expected to succeed Ri Yong-Ho,” as head of the military, Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul told AFP.
He was also likely to take over Ri's other key posts — a member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the party Central Committee and a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, analysts said.
Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute said since Hyon's promotion to a general in 2010, he had been seen as one of the key figures expected to play a role in Kim Jong-Un gaining control over the military.
“It appears that the North is taking steps to appoint Hyon to replace Ri,”Cheong said. But he noted that Hyon had not joined the powerful Central Military Commission of the party and had not accompanied the leader during his public appearances this year.
In contrast, Ri was a highly visible figure and a key supporter of Kim following the death in December of his father Kim Jong-Il, the North's longtime leader.
The official reason given for Ri's departure was illness but analysts expressed scepticism, saying the move showed the young leader was reinforcing his control over the military. Analysts said Ri's fall from power was inevitable after Choe Ryong-Hae, a civilian party official, became the military's top political commissar — Director of the General Political Bureau.
Despite having little military experience, Choe was also appointed as a vice marshal. He was also made one of the two vice chairmen of the party Central Military Commission — a key organ handling military affairs chaired by Kim.
The other vice chairman was Ri. “This is all part of Jong-Un's move to tame the military,” Yoo Dong-Ryul, senior researcher at the state Police Science Institute, told AFP.
“Ri must have resented Choe's assuming control over the military and his complaints reached Jong-Un's ears”.
Little is known about Hyon, but he is believed to be from a family who fought alongside North Korea's founding father Kim Il-Sung against Japanese forces during the colonial era.
The North's military has in recent months ratcheted up hostile rhetoric towards South Korea and its President Lee Myung-Bak, partly in a bid to burnish Kim Jong-Un's credentials.
Ri, at a massive anti-Seoul rally in Pyongyang in March, called South Korean leaders “mad dogs” and “psychos” and declared a “sacred war” against Seoul for allegedly insulting the North's leadership.
The impoverished North last month also denounced US-South Korean drills near the tense border as a provocation and vowed to bolster its “nuclear deterrent”.
North Korea's military has been building up nuclear arsenal and seeking to extend the range of its missiles, sparking international condemnation and sanctions.