WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea’s top three military officials have been removed from their posts, a senior U.S. official said on Sunday, as U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prepare to meet on June 12 in Singapore.
The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was commenting on a report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that all three of the North’s top military officials were believed to have been replaced.
Trump on Friday revived the summit after canceling it a week earlier. The United States is seeking a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
U.S. officials believe there was some dissension in the military about Kim’s approaches to South Korea and the United States.
The U.S. official did not identify the three military officials. Yonhap identified them as defense chief Pak Yong Sik; Ri Myong Su, chief of the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) general staff; and Kim Jong Gak, director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau.
Trump wants North Korea to “denuclearize,” meaning to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, in return for relief from economic sanctions. North Korea’s leadership is believed to regard nuclear weapons as crucial to its survival.
Citing an unnamed intelligence official, Yonhap said No Kwang Chol, first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, had replaced Pak Yong Sik as defense chief, while Ri Myong Su was replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong Gil.
The White House, State Department, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not immediately respond to requests for official comment.
South Korea’s unification and defense ministries declined to confirm the report, while an official at the Unification Ministry said the government was watching the leadership situation in the North very closely.
All of the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, according to Yonhap, especially Ri Yong Gil, 63, who is 21 years younger than Ri Myong Su.
“This points to two things: the consolidation of Kim Jong Un’s power as the sole leader of North Korea and strengthened cooperation between the North’s party and military as the country works towards further economic development,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“They’re all young but capable people,” Yang added.
Army General Kim Su Gil’s replacement of Kim Jong Gak as director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau was confirmed in a North Korean state media report last month when Kim Su Gil accompanied North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on a field guidance trip to a beach tourist zone with other officials.
Lower-level U.S.-North Korean talks to prepare for the summit are continuing but have made only “halting progress,” according to a second U.S. official briefed on the discussions.
That official said U.S. negotiators’ efforts to press for definitions of immediate, comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization by North Korea had run into opposition from the White House.
In a remarkable shift in tone eight days after canceling the summit, citing Pyongyang’s “open hostility,” Trump welcomed North Korea’s former intelligence chief, Kim Yong Chol, to the White House on Friday, afterward exchanging smiles and handshakes.
(Reporting by John Walcott in Washington; Additional reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Cooney)