Pak Jong-chon, who oversaw and led the country’s unprecedented number of missile tests in 2022, “was recalled” and defence minister Ri Yong Gilice was installed as the new vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, according to state media KCNA.
The vast reshuffle at the annual plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea last week included names of at least 53 that are expected to impact military and regional heads of party and government.
Mr Ri was also handed Mr Pak’s job as the secretary of the party’s Central Committee. The party’s Central Military Commission, which is headed by Mr Kim, is regarded as North Korea’s most powerful military authority which is even above the defence ministry.
At the beginning of the plenary meeting, Mr Pak was seen sitting in the front row of the podium with his head bowed down while other members raised their hands to vote on personnel issues. His seat was later shown empty on state television.
he also remained absent in photos released on Monday from Mr Kim’s New Year’s Day visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun which houses the bodies of his grandfather and father, unlike in October when Mr Pak accompanied Mr Kim on a trip to the palace to mark a party anniversary.
It comes as Mr Kim doubled down on the need to “overwhelmingly beef up the military muscle” and called for “an exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal” in his new year’s speech envisaging the 2023 defence strategy.
North Korea will develop new intercontinental ballistic missiles with a “quick nuclear counterstrike” capability to counter the United States and South Korea, he said.
Kim’s regime did not give a reason for his dismissal. It is expected to be part of Pyongyang’s annual restructuring of leadership.
Analysts, however, say it could be over dissatisfaction over South Korea’s swift action of opening fire on North Korean drones intrusion into the South.
From one-star military commander in 2015, Mr Pak quickly ascended in the military hierarchy to become a four-star general in 2020, taking credit for the country’s strides in developing short-range missile technology.
He was promoted to the politburo in 2020 and earned the title of marshal, the highest military rank under Mr Kim. He was the strongest voice to criticise joint South Korea-US military exercises last November.
His career suffered a brief setback when he was demoted in mid-2021 after the North Korean leader chided some officials for their handling of North Korea’s anti-coronavirus policy, before being promoted again months later.
Seoul said South Korea sent three drones across the border in response to the North Korean drones’ intrusion last week. South Korean military said it responded by scrambling jets and attack helicopters and opening fire to try to shoot down the North Korean aircraft.
Oh Gyeong-sup, a fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, told Reuters that the failure to detect the South Korean aircraft might have contributed to his sacking.
“Pak might have taken responsibility for the failure of security operations,” Mr Oh said.