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(2nd LD) Kim Jong-un may have appointed new defense chief

All Headlines 17:34 June 05, 2015

(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 5,8)

SEOUL, June 5 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may have appointed a new defense chief to replace Hyon Yong-chol, who is believed to have been executed, experts said Friday.

The North's Korean Central Television aired documentary footage Thursday that Pak Yong-sik, a four-star military general, saluted Kim Jong-un at an event in late May.

Pak, who was promoted to the current post from a three-star general in April, has been often found at the scene of the young leader's field guidances, cementing speculation that he might have been promoted to the defense minister.

South Korea's spy agency said last month that Hyon, the chief of North Korea's People's Armed Forces, was apparently executed in April with an anti-aircraft gun due to his disloyalty to the leader.

If North Korea's alleged execution of Hyon is confirmed, it would mark another high-profile public execution by the North. In late 2013, Kim ordered the execution of his once-powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

There has been controversy over the authenticity of the spy agency's analysis as Hyon appeared in TV documentary footage even after his alleged death. Usually, North Korea removes records and appearances of purged officials from its newspapers and TV footage.

But in what may be an indication to back up the speculation over Hyon's death, he was not shown in Thursday's documentary footage.

The North's media released archived video footage after erasing all of the scenes where Hyon had appeared, which was believed to have been recorded a few days before Hyon's alleged execution, experts said.

Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said he is aware of Pak's promotion to four-star general, but added that he has no information about Pak's nomination as the defense chief.

"We have no information to confirm the speculation as the North has not officially announced (Pak's appointment)," Lim said at a press briefing.

Experts still remain cautious about Hyon's execution but did not rule out the possibility that Pak might have been appointed as the new defense minister.

"It is common in North Korea that commanding officers at military units accompany the leader when Kim makes field guidances to military facilities," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

"Given this practice, there is a chance that Pak might have been promoted to the North's minister of armed forces," he added.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, agreed, but added, "It is too early to draw such a conclusion. Given North Korea has revealed the name of its new defense chief, there is no reason why the North has not done so."

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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