North ‘confirms’ minister’s purge

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North ‘confirms’ minister’s purge

Pyongyang has described four-star North Korean Gen. Pak Yong-sik as its armed forces minister in state media, effectively confirming for the first time the purge of its former defense chief Hyon Yong-chol, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.

“The North introduced Gen. Pak Yong-sik as its armed forces minster, so we can see this as confirmation that Hyon has been purged and replaced,” Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters on Monday.

However, he added that Pyongyang has yet to confirm Hyon’s execution.

On Saturday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency introduced Pak as its defense chief in a report about a meeting with a military delegation from Laos.

Observers had speculated since last month that Pak had likely taken over Hyon’s position as the head of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces. He has appeared in the media in recent weeks closely accompanying leader Kim Jong-un. He also has been listed by the KCNA as the country’s No. 2 military official, ranked right under Hwang Pyong-so, the director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean Army, where Hyon’s name typically would have appeared.

The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s top spy agency, reported to the National Assembly in May that Hyon had been sentenced to death on April 30 for disrespecting Kim Jong-un and falling asleep at military events, among other reasons. His execution was suspected to have been carried out with an anti-aircraft gun.

Pyongyang, however, did not immediately confirm that Hyon had been purged, and even showed prerecorded images of him on television following his alleged execution.

Despite reports in South Korea of the defense minister’s death, Pyongyang did not offer clarity on Hyon’s status until this weekend. Park, who had served as the deputy chief at the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, is the sixth candidate tapped as defense minister since Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011 after his father’s death.

By contrast, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had four defense chiefs over 17 years in power.

Pak has catapulted up the ranks under the current regime, moving up two ranks over the past year from a three-star lieutenant general. He was promoted to a four-star general in May, apparently after Hyon’s ouster.

“Usually, the promotional course of political officials and military officials are separate, but in the case of Pak Yong-sik, a political official was appointed head of the military,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Unification Strategy Studies Department at the Sejong Institute, said in describing Pak’s experience in a senior position managing the organization of the General Political Bureau, which deals with personnel affairs and monitors senior army officers, including their ideology.

“Pak’s promotion can be interpreted as Kim Jong-un’s aim to firmly dominate its military through its Politburo,” he said.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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