SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) — North Korea has fired Pak Jong Chon, the second most powerful military officer after leader Kim Jong Un, state media reported.
Pak, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission and secretary of the Central Committee, was replaced by Ri Yong Gil at the committee’s annual meeting held last week, the official KCNA news agency reported on Sunday.
No reason was provided for the change. Pyongyang periodically renews its leadership, and the party’s annual meeting has often been used to announce personnel changes and major policy decisions.
State television showed Pak sitting in the front row with his head lowered during the meeting as other members raised their hands to vote on personnel issues. He later saw his seat vacated from him.
He also did not appear in the photos published on Monday by the official KCNA news agency of Kim’s visit on New Year’s Day to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which houses the bodies of his grandfather and father. This marks a difference from October, when Pak accompanied Kim on a trip to the palace to mark a party anniversary.
The party’s Central Military Commission, chaired by Kim, is considered the country’s most powerful military decision-making body, above the Defense Ministry.
Pak’s replacement comes as Kim seeks to develop new ICBMs and a larger nuclear arsenal to counter the United States and South Korea, as a key part of the country’s 2023 defense strategy.
Pak quickly rose through the military ranks, rising from a one-star artillery commander in 2015 to a four-star general in 2020, taking credit for contributing to the progress of the country’s short-range missile technology.
In late 2020, Pak was promoted to the politburo and earned the title of marshal, the highest military rank under Kim’s tenure. Then, last November, he became one of the leading voices against the joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States.
Like most top military commanders who repeatedly ups and downs under Kim, Pak was briefly demoted in mid-2021 after Kim reprimanded some officers for their handling of North Korea’s anti-COVID-19 policy. before being promoted again months later.
Pak’s removal comes despite the fact that Kim mainly praised military advances in weapons development during the meeting, unlike other areas where he pointed out some flaws and called for improvements.
Oh Gyeong-sup, a researcher at the Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said the recent escalation of tension between the two Koreas over the intrusion of North Korean drones into the South could have played a role.
Seoul officials said South Korea sent three drones across the border in response to the intrusion, but there was no response from the North, which Oh said could mean it missed the aircraft.
“Pak could have taken responsibility for the failure of the security operations,” Oh said.
Ri, Pak’s successor, is also a high-ranking military officer who held key posts such as Army Chief of Staff and Defense Minister.