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North Korean leader 'awarded' top military rank

North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un has been appointed the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army – further consolidating his power in the reclusive country. NBC News' Ed Flanagan reports from Beijing.

BEIJING –"We've decided to award the title of Marshal to Kim Jong Un, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army," the Korean TV anchor said in a special newscast Wednesday.

While the announcement that Kim Jong Un had been formally tapped as the top commander of the Korean People’s Army was considered a foregone conclusion around the world, the move crosses the t’s and dots the i’s crucial to the young leader’s bid to cement his control over the reclusive nation.

Conferred on Tuesday, but announced Wednesday, the title officially consolidates Kim’s control of the major organs of power in North Korea.


Consolidating power
In April, Kim was tapped as head of the Worker’s Party of Korea and First Chairman of the National Defense Commission. Those appointments came in the run up to a grand military parade and failed rocket launch that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the nation, and his grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

Krt / Reuters

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un inspects an armoured vehicle in this undated still image taken from video at an unknown location in North Korea released by North Korean state TV KRT on January 8, 2012.

But the title of “Marshal” conveyed on Kim gives the leader previously known as “The Young General” the highest rank in North Korea’s armed forces and final say over the most powerful body in the country: the 1.2 million strong Korean People’s Army.

Kim’s elevation wasn’t without losers. In the days leading up to the announcement, Kim is said to have orchestrated the purging of top general, Ri Yong-ho, who was previously Vice-Marshal of the army.

North Korea military chief, ally of new leader, relieved of duty

A relative unknown officer, Hyon Yong-chol, was chosen to replace Ri, leading to speculation that the move was made so Kim could more easily tap military resources without having to work through the elder, respected Ri.

Kim Kwang Hyon / AP

North Korean soldiers dance in the streets of Pyongyang on Wednesday after North Korea announced that leader Kim Jong Un was granted the title of marshal, a move that cements his status at the top of the authoritarian nation's military.

"I think North Korea's power elite group needed to control the military's reckless and provocative actions because Kim Jong Un can't implement any economic policies under such circumstances,” said Lee Seung-yeol, a senior research fellow at Ewha Institute of Unification Studies. ”It was seen as a necessary choice to sack Ri Yong-ho, who led the military's hardline policies for the last three years, to control the military."

Korean state press reported that Ri was being relieved due to illness, but according to Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group, sickness is not typically a motivator for North Korean generals to step down.

"An undefined health problem, I think that's very unlikely, it's not how they deal with it in North Korea,” Pinkston told a group of journalists in Seoul. “There are a number of officials, or cases of officials, who still stay in their positions despite very poor health or terminal illnesses, that's not how they deal with it."

Since taking over for his father, Kim Jong Il, following his death in December, the younger Kim, said to be in his twenties, has apparently been quietly working to consolidate his power in North Korea. The leadership in Pyongyang, older and once fiercely loyal to the elder Kim, have rallied around Kim Jong Un, banking on the stability provided by his hereditary succession. 

On the surface, Kim appears to be making a slight departure from the cold, rigid control his father wielded over the DPRK. Just half a year since his elevation to power, Kim has spoken publically far more than the elder Kim ever did.

Even the news of Kim’s promotion was preceded by an earlier statement that an “important announcement” was going to be made, a rarity during the previous Kim’s reign.  The pre-alert lead to concerns over what the announcement might entail and sent South Korea’s stock market down 1.5 percent, halting three previous days of gains in the market.

'Mystery woman' stirs talk of changing times in North Korea

In addition, recent pictures of Kim glad-handing with military officers, attending events with a mysterious young woman rumored to be his sister or wife  and even taking in a concert employing dancing Disney-like characters, have brought speculation that the young leader is quietly allowing some liberalization to occur.

Not so, said Pinkston.

"As far as people speculating about Yong-ho being sacked and this being a sign of moving in a direction of reform and liberalization, I don't see that being the case,” he said.

With this further consolidation of power at the cost of one of his father’s close military advisers, Kim is seemingly swinging the pendulum in the other direction, showing that just like his father, the young marshal plans to rule through his army.