North Korea has confirmed it replaced the general who was chief of staff of its military when a Pyongyang-registered freighter carrying Cuban weapons was seized in Panama, although the two events are probably not directly related, according to an analyst.
Gen. Kim Kyok Sik was on a temporary appointment to the chief of staff post, so the freighter’s seizure most likely merely provided the proper time to replace him, said Michael Madden, editor of the Web page North Korean Leadership Watch.
Kim’s departure after less than five months as Chief of the Korean Peoples Army’s General Staff “was only a matter of time. I think the seizure of the ship in Panama just hurried things along,” Madden told El Nuevo Herald on Monday.
North Korea’s official media confirmed last week that Kim had been replaced by Gen. Ri Yong Gil, Madden added. Unofficial reports of the switch that made the rounds in August had triggered speculation Kim had been fired because of the Cuba case.
Kim’s name was linked to the scandal surrounding the freighter Chong Chon Gang because he led a high-ranking military delegation that visited Havana in July, about the same time the ship was in Cuba loading 420 tons of weapons and 10,000 tons of sugar.
After Panama arrested the ship and found the undeclared weapons before it entered the Panama Canal on its way to North Korea, the Cuban foreign ministry described the shipment as “obsolete” weapons sent to be repaired and returned to Havana.
U.N. Security Council officials are investigating whether the shipment violated an international arms embargo slapped on Pyongyang since 2006 because of its nuclear weapons and missile development programs.
Kim’s replacement was first rumored around the same time that Cuba’s official news media announced that Gen. Pedro Mendiondo Gomez, head of the island’s Anti Aircraft Defense and Revolutionary Air Force, had been killed in a car accident on Aug. 25.
Mendiondo’s title put him in overall charge of two Soviet-made anti-aircraft missile systems, two MiG 21s warplanes and 16 engines for the jets found hidden under the tons of Cuban sugar aboard the North Korean freighter.
The report of Mendiondo’s death did not detail where or how the accident occurred and said his body was cremated. Cuba’s official media did not publish the usual praise for government officials who die, or the usual photos of the funeral services.
Cuba’s report noted that the crash also killed his in-laws, Juan Rubalcaba Gato and Graciela Terry Aguirre, and severely injured his wife, Rafaela Rubalcaba Terry. There had been no updates on her condition or the crash since then.
Madden said he believed Kim’s removal as chief of the general staff soon after the Chong Chon Gang’s seizure was a coincidence because the 75-year-old had served in that post before and has a history of short-term assignments.
Kim first served as chief of the general staff from April 2007 to February 2009, Madden noted. From July 2011 until October 2012, he was military advisor to North Korean ruler Kim Jung Un and his father and predecessor, Kim Jung Il, while publicly holding the position of Vice Minister of the People’s Armed Forces.
He also served as minister of the People’s Armed Forces, the equivalent of defense minister, from October 2012 until May 2013, when he was appointed to this second term as chief of the general staff
Today, Kim is either retired or is holding a behind-the-scenes role in the government, Madden added.