North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

KPA To Begin Abbreviated Winter Drills on December 1

The Korean People’s Army [KPA] and Worker-Peasant Red Guards will begin the winter drill on 1 December.  Yonhap, citing a DPRK source, reports that the annual winter drills will last until 20 December which was described as “short than usual”:

The news of the planned drills came weeks after North Korea test-fired anti-ship missiles twice by using its IL-28 bomber in the western waters.

North Korea has also reinforced coastal artillery gun positions near its base close to the tense western sea border with South Korea, in an apparent response to Seoul’s move to bolster its artillery bases on its border islands.

Last year, the North torpedoed a South Korean warship and shelled the South’s border island of Yeonpyeong, killing 50 people and driving relations between the sides to the lowest point in decades.

South Korea has recently held a large-scale annual exercise across the country to strengthen its defense readiness against possible North Korean provocation.

Meanwhile, after the reported promotion of Gen. U Tong Chuk, another rumored senior KPA appointment has surfaced.  Gen. Kim Kyok Sik (Kim Kyo’k-sik) has returned to the Korean People’s Army General Staff Department [GSD] in the position of Vice Chief.    From February 2009 to August 2011 he served as commander of the forward-deployed IV Army Corps on the DPRK’s west coast in South Hwanghae Province.

Gen. Kim Kyok Sik (L) (Photo: KCNA)

Gen. Kim had a command role in the artillery shelling of Yonpyong Island on 23 November 2010, and a planning or advisory role in the March 2010 sinking of the ROK naval corvette Chonan.  During early August 2011, according to one report, he inspected coastal artillery units on Yongmae Island, possibly one of his last official acts as commander of the KPA’s forces in the western zone.  Gen. Kim’s return to GSD has caused some Pyongyang watchers to wonder if he was replaced by a corps commander tied to Kim Jong Un (Kim Cho’ng-u’n).  Chosun Ilbo reports:

Immediately before the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, leader Kim Jong-il and his son and heir Jong-un visited Hwanghae Province, where they reportedly met Kim Kyok-sik.

A former senior North Korean official, who has defected to the South, said Kim’s return to the General Staff is “a kind of reward for his work in the field. It’s not clear whether it’s a promotion, but it’s not a demotion,” he said.

Another South Korean government official said it seems Kim Kyok-sik was replaced as part of Kim Jong-un’s efforts to replace aging frontline commanders with younger generals. “It’s too early to see his dismissal from the Fourth Corps as part of the North’s attempt to seek rapprochement with South Korea,” he added.

From 2007 to 2009 Gen. Kim served as chief of the KPA General Staff.  His February 2009 replacement by current GSD head Ri Yong Ho was interpreted as a demotion.  However, during his time heading GSD, Gen. Kim may have planned the aggressive, forward-leaning policies he enacted as IV Corps commander.  JoongAng reports:

“On Sept. 9, when a military pageant was held to mark the founding of the North Korean regime, Commander Kim was seated separately from other generals,” the source told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday.

“Recently, we witnessed an inauguration of a new commander for the 4th corps and a luxury foreign car appeared at the ceremony,” the source continued. “[Among many scenarios] we are weighing the possibility of his being replaced.”

For South Korea, the hawkish commander’s replacement could be a sign of the North trying to improve ties.

“Kim’s replacement could be in response to our constant demands for apologies and the North taking responsibility for provocations such as the torpedoed Cheonan warship and Yeonpyeong Island,” a government official said.

Some government sources suggested that Kim maybe have been made vice defense minister or deputy chief of the KPA general staff.

“When Kim was transferred to head the 4th corps in 2009 from being the chief of the general staff, some said he was demoted,” a source told JoongAng Ilbo. “However, it turned out later that Kim was in charge of an important task to direct a military clash between the two Koreas near the Northern Limit Line. It could be that he was assigned another important task from the North Korean leader.”

Kim Jong Il walks by KPA general officers after the Foundation Day parade by the Workers' Peasant Red Guards in September 2011

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