SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s state media confirmed on Friday that Ri Yong Gil has become the new chief of the military’s general staff, the latest in leader Kim Jong Un’s leadership change.
As Kim shifts the focus to the economy and pursues diplomacy with the United States, he has been replacing older, more conservative officers who were wedded to the country’s nuclear doctrine with loyalists who would follow any changes he may make, U.S. officials and analysts say.
The North’s official KCNA agency said Ri accompanied Kim on his visit to a war veterans’ cemetery as the army’s chief of general staff, marking the 65th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
Ri formerly held the four-star position before he was briefly demoted deputy chief and three stars for an unspecified reason in 2016.
His return adds the recent appointments of No Kwang Chol, first vice defense minister, as the defense chief, and Army General Kim Su Gil as director of the military’s powerful General Political Bureau.
All of the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, even though they are all in their 60s. Ri is 63 years old, 21 years younger than his predecessor, Ri Myong Su.
With Pyongyang and Washington in nuclear talks, U.S. officials believe there was some dissent in the North Korean military about the negotiations, a complete reversal of Kim’s years-long pursuit of nuclear weapons and warlike rhetoric. It was not clear if the sacked officers were responsible.
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