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SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea has replaced its hard-line defense minister with a little-known army general, according to a state media report Monday, in what outside analysts call an attempt to install a younger figure meant to solidify leader Kim Jong Un's grip on the powerful military.
Jang Jong Nam's appointment is the latest move since Kim succeeded his late father in late 2011 that observers see as a young leader trying to consolidate control. The announcement comes amid easing animosities after weeks of warlike threats between the rivals, including North Korean vows of nuclear strikes.
Pyongyang's rhetorical outbursts against massive U.S.-South Korean war drills and U.N. sanctions over the North's February nuclear test were seen, in part, as a push to portray Kim at home as a respected military commander on the world stage.
Jang's new role as minister of the People's Armed Forces, however, isn't thought to indicate a potential softening of Pyongyang's stance toward Seoul and Washington any time soon, analysts said. Jang replaces Kim Kyok Sik, the former commander of battalions believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans. Outsiders don't know much about Jang, but analysts said it's unlikely that Kim Jong Un would name a moderate to the post at a time of tension with the outside world.
Mention of Jang's new role was buried in a state media dispatch listing those who attended an art performance with the young leader. It's not known exactly when Jang was formally appointed to the ministerial post.
The announcement coincided with the beginning Monday of U.S.-South Korean naval exercises involving a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier. North Korea has criticized the carrier's inclusion in the two-day drills, which it claims are preparations for an invasion of the North.
Also, when tensions peaked in March, Washington took the unusual step of announcing that nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers had participated in the earlier, larger-scale joint drills between the allies. North Korea regularly cites the powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal and Washington's deployment of those assets in the region as justification for its own pursuit of nuclear weapons.
One of the most notable changes Kim Jong Un has made was the replacement of the powerful military chief, Ri Yong Ho, who was dismissed last July because of what Pyongyang called an unspecified illness. Outside observers speculated that Ri, the military's General Staff chief, was purged as Kim tried to put his stamp on his government. Ri was also replaced by a little-known general. The military chief is considered a higher ranking position than the defense minister.
State media previously identified Jang as head of the army's First Corps and said he pledged allegiance to Kim and threatened South Korea in a speech last December. Jang was quoted as saying that his corps would annihilate its enemies and "turn each ravine into their death pitfall when the hour of decisive battle comes."
Kim appears to be naming someone from a new generation to bolster his rule of the 1.2 million-member military, said Chang Yong Seok at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
Jang is believed to be in 50s, while his predecessor, Kim Kyok Sik, is in his early 70s, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for dealings with the North. Kim was appointed to the ministerial job last year, but Chang portrayed him as belonging more to the era of Kim Jong Il.
Because outsiders know so little about Jang, it remains to be seen whether his appointment will lead to Pyongyang refraining from attacking South Korea, Chang said.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said it's unlikely that Jang is a moderate. A moderate figure appointed defense minister after weeks of high tension with the outside world could trigger whispers at home that the North is surrendering to Seoul and Washington, he said.