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North Korea replaces hard-line military chief

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October 10, 2013: North Korean soldiers salute the statues of late leaders, Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong Il on Mansudae to mark the 68th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea Thursday. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

North Korea has replaced its hard-line military chief only a few months after his appointment, state media confirmed Thursday, the latest in an ongoing reshuffle of top personnel that analysts say is meant to solidify ruler Kim Jong Un's grip on power.

The replacement was believed to have been made in August when North Korea was pushing to ease animosity and resume lucrative cooperation projects with South Korea after threatening nuclear war throughout the spring.

The name of new military chief, Ri Yong Gil, came in a Korean Central News Agency dispatch listing top officials who accompanied Kim to a Pyongyang mausoleum on Thursday. Ri replaced Kim Kyok Sik, who is the former commander of battalions believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 people. State media dispatches first identified Kim as the military's general staff chief in May.

Little is known about Ri except that he served as commander of a frontline army corps and a top operation officer at the general staff. It's not known what happened to the replaced Kim.

"We cannot say Ri is not a hard-liner, but Kim Kyok Sik has a reputation for taking an extraordinarily hard line on South Korea," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

He said it "would be burdensome" for North Korea to keep Kim in charge of the army when it was trying to improve ties with the outside world.

Kim Jong Un has frequently replaced top government, ruling party and military officials since taking power following the December 2011 death of his father and analysts say he wants to install new figures loyal to him in key posts. Ri is Kim's fourth general staff chief.

"The fact that he can frequently replace the top army officer shows he has a firm control over the military," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University.

One of the most notable personnel changes Kim oversaw was the firing of military chief Ri Yong Ho, who was once dubbed as Kim's mentor. State media said he was dismissed in July 2012 due to an unspecified illness but analysts speculated Ri was purged as Kim was trying to reshape the government.

Nearly half of about 220 top government, Workers' Party and military officials have been replaced since Kim took power, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.