Kim Jong Un demotes military officials to focus on food over nukes

Kim Jong Un-derlings: New images show North Korean leader has demoted military officials as he focuses on feeding his country instead of nukes amid ‘great crisis’

  • North Korea has faced significant food shortages in recent months
  • Anti-pandemic policies have exacerbated economic problems and food scarcity
  • In April, Kim Jong Un warned of a famine which could lead to the deaths of millions
  • Analysts say the North Korean leader has demoted military figures in favour of civilians, focusing on economic recovery over militarisation

Kim Jong Un has demoted a military leader in a dramatic reshuffle of leadership that left the ruling party’s top body dominated by civilians.  

Analysts believe the dictator’s overhaul of leadership positions suggests a renewed focus on combatting food shortages and bureaucratic failures over military development.

Last week, North Korea announced the latest in a series of leadership changes that may be the most significant reshuffle of top officials in years. 

State media has not given details of the personnel changes, but the demotions likely came for officials associated with what Kim has called a ‘great crisis’, as coronavirus lapses and border closures have compounded the country’s economic problems and food shortages.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (centre front) visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang on greatest memorial day, but top adviser Ri Pyong Chol has been moved several rows away, signifying demotion

Photographs published in state media on Thursday of Kim visiting his family mausoleum appear to confirm that Ri Pyong Chol, a top adviser who plays a leading role in North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programmes, has at least lost his position on the politburo Presidium.

Ri, who sometimes wears his military uniform, was seen in the photos wearing civilian clothes and standing several rows behind Kim, indicating his new role is unclear.

A new appointment in his place on the presidium did not appear in the photos, and all those standing next to Kim are civilians.

This shows the military has been ‘pushed down the pecking order’, said Ken Gause, a North Korea leadership specialist at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organisation based in the United States. 

‘The focus internally is on the economy, not the nuclear programme,’ he said. 

This comes mere months after Kim Jong Un warned that North Korea is facing a great famine which he compared to a 1990s famine thought to have killed up to 3.5million North Koreans. 

North Korea is a mountainous nation, meaning suitable land for farming is in short supply and many of its farmers lack access to tools such as tractors, combine harvesters and threshers.

It is thought that North Korea relies on foreign imports and aid to feed around a third of its population, but 2017 UN report concluded that two fifths of the population are undernourished – meaning they don’t have access to the number of calories needed per day to maintain a healthy weight.

A third of North Korea children are also thought to be stunted, meaning they did not get enough calories during the early years of their life.

Last year, Kim Jong Un declared that pet dogs are a symbol of capitalist ‘decadence’ and ordered that dogs in Pyongyang be rounded up – but many suspect this was a ploy to try and stave off the nation’s food shortages. 

Kim Jong Un himself has lost considerable amounts of weight in recent weeks, though there is speculation as to why the leader has dropped so many pounds and whether it is health-related

Last year, North Korean authorities confiscated dogs from residents’ homes in a move many believe to be linked to solving food shortages with dog meat (Pictured: dogs locked in cages in South Korean meat farm)

The photos also suggest that Choe Sang Gon, a party secretary and director of the science and education department, lost his position in the politburo, while Kim Song Nam, International Department director, and Ho Chol Man, Cadres Department director, may have been promoted to full members, Lee said.

Kim Jong Un has been frustrated by officials not accurately carrying out his directives or communicating information up to him, and the personnel changes may fit with broader efforts to ‘rewire the guts of the regime’ by devolving authority down the chain of command, Gause said.

‘Kim has tightened his inner circle around a group of technocrats and internal security personnel, the two sectors dedicated to making Juche run at the moment,’ he said, referring to the North Korean ideology of self-reliance. 

‘It is not a long-term plan, but temporary measure given the extraordinary circumstances the regime is facing.’

Michael Madden, a leadership expert at 38 North, said that what looked like a demotion could often be part of a routine shuffle aimed at preventing any one official from building up too much of a power base, or an instance of reassigning a competent and trusted official to handle a particular problem in a more hands-on role.

‘Demotions are very common things in North Korea politics,’ he said. ‘We need to keep in mind that things that look like demotions to us can in fact be something else.’

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