State media in North Korea announced that Pak Jong Chon, the second-most prominent military figure after the country’s leader Kim Jong Un, had been fired.
At the Central Military Commission’s annual meeting last week, Ri Yong Gil took over for Pak, who served as secretary of the party’s Central Committee and vice chairman of the commission, the official KCNA news agency said on Sunday.
The change was not explained. Pyongyang frequently changes the composition of its leadership, and announcements of important policy changes are frequently made at the year-end party assembly.
Pak was depicted on state television at the meeting sitting in the front row of the podium with his head bowed while other participants raised their hands to vote on personnel matters. His seat was later revealed to be vacant.
In contrast to last October, when Pak joined Kim on a visit to the palace to honor a party anniversary, he was also missing from images of Kim’s New Year’s Day visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which is where his grandfather and father’s remains are kept.
Above the defense ministry, the party’s Central Military Commission, which is led by Kim, is regarded as the nation’s most potent military decision-making organization.
As part of the isolated nation’s 2023 defense plan, Kim called for the creation of new intercontinental ballistic missiles and a greater nuclear arsenal to confront the United States and South Korea. At the same time, Pak was replaced.
From a one-star artillery commander in 2015 to a four-star general in 2020, Pak rose swiftly through the military ranks, claiming credit for advancements made in the nation’s short-range missile capability.
Pak was elevated to the politburo in late 2020 and awarded the marshal title, the highest military rank under Kim, before leading the opposition to joint military drills between South Korea and the United States last November.
Pak was briefly demoted in mid-2021 after Kim reprimanded some officials for their handling of North Korea’s anti-coronavirus campaign, before being elevated again months later, like most other top military advisers who had ups and downs periodically under Kim.
Pak was fired despite Kim praising the military’s accomplishments in weaponry more than other sectors, where he identified shortcomings and advocated for improvement.
A recent spike in tension between North and South Korea over the use of drones in the South, according to Oh Gyeong-sup, a fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, may have contributed.
In reaction to the intrusion, South Korea is claimed to have dispatched three drones across the border, according to Seoul officials. However, the North did not respond, which according to Oh could indicate that it failed to detect the aircraft.
Oh speculated that “Pak might have accepted accountability for the failure of security operations.”
Ri, Pak’s replacement, is a veteran military leader who has served in important roles such as defense minister and chief of the army’s general staff.