For the night of 16 July 2012
North Korea: In a two-step process, General Hyon Yong-chol was promoted to the rank of Vice Marshal on 17 July and might be appointed to the position of Chief of the General Staff, replacing Vice Marshal Ri. However, the new Chief has not been announced.
Comment: Hyon is believed to have been an Army Corps commander in the rear, following his promotion to General in 2010. Open sources have very little information about the new vice marshal. No additional details have been reported about the circumstances of Vice Marshal Ri's dismissal.
In the North's information control systems, symbolism and personalities are important. Thus, analysts in South Korea are right to report on the hem lines and attire of North Korean women in Pyongyang as potential signs of an easing of the Maoist-style severity that Kim Chong-il ordered for his people. There are business opportunities in the rise and fall of female fashions, even in North Korea.
Similarly, North Koreans are taught to study the leadership lineup and changes to it in order to discern the policy line of the government. People embody the policy line. For example, based on public appearances with Kim Jong-un, Vice Marshal Ri acted as if he was and appeared to be the military tutor and advisor to Kim jong-un, hand-picked by Kim Chong-il.
Old hands have observed that since the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the mutiny of the Sixth Army Corps the following year, loyalty to Kim has trumped military professionalism and skill. Kim Chong-il filled all senior military positions with classmates or men whose actions demonstrated their personal loyalty to him, rather than their ability to wage war against South Korea.
Old hands have waited to see promotions of men whose rise would embody modernization of the North Korean armed forces, which has occurred in the past. The rapid rise of Vice Marshal Ri perpetuated the cult of rewarding the armed forces leaders for loyalty. Ri commanded the Pyongyang Defense Command, whose primary purpose is to protect the Kim family.
Vice Marshal Hyon is from the ground forces and from a rear area command, not the four warfighting Corps along the Demilitarized Zone whose commanders always were promoted to fill the senior ranks of the armed forces planning and command structure when Kim Il-sung was alive.
Based on what is known at this point, Kim Jong-un apparently continues to promote personal loyalty, over military competence. He is not constrained by the decisions of his father, but promotes the popular belief that he is the re-incarnation of Kim Il-sung, in mannerisms and style.
His filial piety runs to his grandfather, more than to his father. Under that mantle, he appears to have relaxed the almost paranoid restrictions imposed by his father and has nurtured a more open style. He is moving away from the dead-hand of his father. The Chief of the General Staff, for good or ill, is no longer Kim Chong-il's man. However, Hyon's promotion implies no government decision to modernize the North Korean armed forces.
That is good news for the United Nations Command in South Korea because the new Kim appears to be less threatening, now that he is in power, but still values loyalty above all. Secondly, it means North Korea is in an internal transition. It will be prickly towards outsiders, but primarily preoccupied with the internal direction of the state. There already have been several other changes to lesser positions in the Ministry of the Peoples' Armed Forces this month. More are likely.
Persian Gulf Incident: Comment: All news services have reported the details of the US Navy engagement with a civilian boat that refused to respond to repeated warnings. The boat was not Iranian, Nevertheless, the larger significance of the incident is that it displays the readiness of US naval personnel to follow their rules of engagement, to shoot rather than risk the ship.
The message for Iran is the US Navy will shoot to kill.
End of NightWatch for 16 July.
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