North Korea’s Kim sacks No. 2 military official

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Pak, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission and secretary of the party’s Central Committee, was replaced by Ri Yong Gil at the committee’s annual meeting last week, said the official KCNA news agency on Sunday.

No reason was given for the change. Pyongyang regularly renews its leadership and the year-end party gathering has often been used to announce personnel changes and key policy decisions.

State television showed Pak sitting in the front row of the podium with his head down during the meeting while other members raised their hands to vote on personnel matters. His seat was later shown unoccupied.

He was also missing from photos released Monday by the official KCNA news agency of Kim’s New Year’s visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun that contains the bodies of his grandfather and his father, unlike in October when Pak accompanied Kim on a trip to the Sun. palace to mark a holiday anniversary.

The party’s Central Military Commission, which is headed by Kim, is considered the most powerful military decision-making body in the country, above the defense ministry.

Pak’s replacement came as Kim called for the development of new intercontinental ballistic missiles and a larger nuclear arsenal to counter the US and South Korea as key to the country’s defense strategy isolated to 2023.

Pak had quickly moved up the military ladder from a one-star artillery commander in 2015 to a four-star general in 2020, taking credit for contributing to progress in long-range missile technology short of the country.

In late 2020, Pak was promoted to the politburo and earned the title of marshal, the highest military rank under Kim, and became a leading voice last November against joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States.

Like most other top military aides who have gone through repeated ups and downs under Kim, Pak was briefly demoted in mid-2021 after Kim reprimanded some officials for their handling of politics against the North Korean coronavirus, before being promoted again months later.

Pak’s dismissal comes despite Kim largely praising the military’s advances in weapons development during the meeting, unlike in other areas where he pointed to some flaws and called for improvements.

Oh Gyeong-sup, a fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said a recent flare-up in inter-Korean tension over North Korea’s drone intrusion into the South may have role.

Officials in Seoul said South Korea sent three drones across the border in response to the intrusion, but there was no response from the North, which Oh said could mean it failed to detect the an airplane.

“Pak could have taken responsibility for the failure of security operations,” Oh said.

Ri, Pak’s successor, is also a senior military commander who has held key positions including army chief of general staff and defense minister.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

By Hyonhee Shin

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