Hyon Yong-Chol, newly appointed chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, is shown in this screen grab taken from North Korean TV. (AFP)
SEOUL — North Korea said a recently appointed vice marshal was the nation’s new army chief, replacing a high-profile figure who had been central to the communist regime with a little-known general.
State media said late Wednesday that Hyon Yong-Chol was chief of the nation’s 1.2-million-strong military, as new leader Kim Jong-Un apparently seeks to push out the old guard and tighten his grip over the army.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) used the official title for the nation’s military chief to describe Hyon in a news report on celebrations to mark Jong-Un being named “Marshal” of the North.
“Hyon Yong-Chol, chief of the general staff of the KPA (Korean People’s Army), offered the highest glory and the warmest congratulations to the respected supreme commander,” it said.
KCNA did not say when Hyon officially became army chief, although the move was widely expected following his promotion to vice marshal two days ago.
Hyon replaces Ri Yong-Ho, who had been regarded as one of Jong-Un’s inner circle. He was relieved of all his posts on Sunday officially due to “illness”, an explanation met with scepticism by North Korea watchers.
Little is known about Hyon, who is in his early 60s, 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.
He became a general in September 2010 along with five others — including Kim Jong-Un himself and his aunt Kim Kyong-Hui.
In contrast, Ri, 69, was a highly visible figure who helped support Jong-Un following the death in December of his father and longtime ruler of the nuclear-armed North, Kim Jong-Il.
He was seen on recent visits to military bases with the young leader, and was one of a small circle of top officials who accompanied him when he walked alongside the hearse carrying Jong-Il’s body during his funeral.
When he was named “Marshal” earlier Wednesday, Jong-Un took on a title earlier held by his father.
Senior military officials and thousands of soldiers gathered in Pyongyang to celebrate Jong-Un’s promotion and to pledge loyalty to the new marshal, state TV showed.
According to KCNA, Hyon said “that the title awarded to Kim Jong-Un is a manifestation of the boundless respect of the army and people... and an event... that displayed their firm will to trust only the supreme commander and follow him.”
Analysts say the recent moves suggest that the ruling communist party led by Jong-Un is trying to rein in the army, that has gained huge power under the “Songun” (military-first) policy of Jong-Il.
“All steps necessary for (Jong-Un) to control the army have been completed,” Cheong Seong-Chang of Sejong Institute said.
Jong-Un, believed to be in his late 20s, became the North’s supreme commander and the first secretary of the party after the death of his father.
He is the third in a dynasty to lead the country.