In an unanticipated move, First Vice-Director of the People’s Armed Forces Kim Il Cheol has left his position.
Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA) revealed on Tuesday in a brief statement, “According to the No. 06 Decision of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK, Kim Il Cheol has been relieved of his duties as a member of the National Defense Commission and First Vice-Director of the People’s Armed Forces due to old age.”
The only reason the KCNA gave was his age, 80. However, the aging phenomenon is nothing special among the octogenarian North Korean leadership. Therefore, there are likely to have been other reasons for his removal.
By way of example, Cho Myung Rok is 82 and lies in his sickbed, yet he is still officially Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Similarly, Lee Yong Cheol, the former First Vice-Director of the Guidance Department of the Central Committee, died at age 81 on April 26th after 16 years in his post. Moreover, 89-year old Lee Eul Seol continues unabated as commander of the Escort Bureau, the powerful guard unit charged with Kim Jong Il’s security.
Therefore, North Korea experts and defectors all see this as an unusual case and age as unlikely to be the reason for it.
One anonymous defector working for a national research institute in Seoul said, “Even Cho Myung Rok, who is older than Kim Il Cheol, is still in his position; the announcement of Kim’s dismissal is quite a rare case.”
“Also,” he added, “when there is a change in personnel, they do not usually report that someone has been removed, they announce that someone else has been selected for the position instead.”
These doubts are giving rise to a number of theories. Since Kim Il Cheol has a naval background, one assumption is that he might be a scapegoat for the Cheonan incident.
A positive spin on the Cheonan incident has been cultivated in the military, with the official version being “our heroic Chosun People’s Army took revenge on the enemy,” referring to retribution for the November naval battle in which the North Koreans came off worst.
However, a North Korean torpedo has become by far the most plausible cause of the sinking, with chemical stains being found on parts of the Cheonan, so there is a chance that the authorities may see it as an imperfect operation where evidence was left behind.
However, since Kim Young Cheol of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance is said to have overseen the sinking yet remains in post, this assumption seems dubious.
Another more likely suggestion is that it is a part of the succession process.
Cheong Seong Chang, a senior researcher of North-South relations at the Sejong Institute, said, “If the North had reshuffled personnel to censure Kim Il Cheol for misconduct, they would have dealt with it silently. Therefore, it was probably not that. Instead, it seems to be one step in moving Kim Jong Eun’s associates into core positions so as to establish the succession system.”
Cheong explained, “The authorities allow Cho Myung Rok, Lee Eul Seol and Kim Young Chun to keep their positions, and give preferential and honorable treatment to elders generally. It seems they might be attempting to give a powerful position to one of Kim Jong Eun’s people at the expense of Kim Il Cheol, who has a comparatively lower reputation than these other old officials.”
Kim Il Cheol started his career in the navy before his promotion to Director of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces. In the 1990s, he established himself as one of the core military officials alongside Cho Myung Rok and Kim Young Chun. But then, in an unusual move, in February, 2009, he was replaced as Director by Kim Young Chun for unknown reasons, and took up Kim Young Chun’s position as First Vice-director. Now, one year later, he has completely left office.