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North Korean Leader Has a New Title: Marshal

Kim Kwang Hyon and Jon Chol Jin|Reporters, The Associated Press
AFP | Getty Images

Soldiers danced in Pyongyang's plazas as North Korea announced Wednesday that leader Kim Jong Un was named marshal, a title cementing his status atop the authoritarian nation's military as he makes key changes to the 1.2 million-man force.

State media said in a special noon bulletin that North Korea's military, government and political leadership had decided Tuesday to award the top title to Kim, who already is supreme commander of the Korean People's Army. It solidifies his standing seven months into Kim's rule and follows several days of reshuffling at the highest levels of the military.

Soldiers applauded and cheered the news during a meeting at the April 25 House of Culture called by military officers and officials from the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces.

Among the men lined up on stage was the military's new vanguard: four generals promoted to vice marshal since Kim Jong Un succeed his father Kim Jong Il, who died in December.

It remains unclear how the military reshuffle will affect North Korea's tense relationship with its neighbors and the United States, which stations more than 28,000 troops in ally South Korea.

The South Korean and U.S. militaries have stepped up their monitoring of North Korea's military in the wake of Ri's dismissal, but they've seen no suspicious activities, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry. It gave no further details.

The announcement of Kim Jong Un's title and the presentation of the new military leadership comes just three days after the dismissal of army chief Ri Yong Ho, a high-ranking figure in both political and military circles and seen as a close adviser to Kim. The government said Ri was ill, but there was widespread speculation abroad of a military reshuffle at the top levels.

A day later, a general named Hyon Yong Chol was promoted to vice marshal, joining three others named to that rank in February and April. Hyon became a member of the Workers' Party's Central Committee, a key decision-making body, in September 2010, and was on the funeral committee for Kim Jong Il in two strong indicators of his rise in stature.

The title of marshal — held previously by Kim's father and grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung — is "another brick in the wall of consolidating Kim Jong Un's power, across party, state and military institutions," said John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Yonsei University in South Korea.

"In the wake of Ri's stepping down, it takes on added significance," he said. "Titles, of course, do not ensure authority. But the regime would appear to be closing ranks around their young leader."

Soldiers and students in uniform filled the streets of the capital to celebrate, dancing and singing despite the rain.

"I am pleased that our cherished desire came into reality," Kim Jong Gum, a student at the Kang Pan Sok Revolutionary School dressed in a military uniform, told The Associated Press. "July 18th: This day will be remembered in our hearts as another meaningful and auspicious day."

One by one, Kim Jong Un has collected top posts in the military and party, including first chairman of the National Defense Commission, first secretary of the ruling Workers' Party, chairman of the party's Central Military Commission and member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau. He was made supreme commander of the military in December, just days after his father's death from a heart attack.

Kim Jong Il held the title marshal until he was posthumously made "generalissimo" — the nation's top military title — in February, shortly before what would have been his 70th birthday. He had been named marshal 20 years earlier when North Korea founder Kim Il Sung was promoted to generalissimo.

As leader, the young Kim has continued to maintain his father's policy of "songun," or military first, and has sought to inspire loyalty with visits to military units, often with Ri, the ex-army chief, at his side. However, he also has made building up the economy a priority and promoting officials with economic expertise.