North Korea's army has been swearing oaths of loyalty to leader Kim Jong Un after he was given the new title of marshal of the nation, cementing his position. This comes just days after the army chief was dismissed for illness. Analysts suspect these announcements are masking much - far deeper changes. But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, there's disagreement about what it means exactly.


LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: This was the prelude to a special announcement in a week of shock announcements.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The 20-something leader, Kim Jong Un, was named marshal of the nation, increasing his authority over the army, this just days after the former army chief was dismissed for illness and a relatively unknown military man named in his place.

JOHN MCCREARY: These events have happened with remarkable speed for North Korea. Nothing happens fast in North Korea unless there is a crisis.

LIM: John McCreary is a former senior intelligence analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now tracking national security threats at K-Force Government Solutions in Virginia.

MCCREARY: I do know that the pace of events and the outcome means that there was insubordination involved - military insubordination. Because it occurred over - in less than three days. Normally these kind of things take over - like years.

LIM: Just seven months ago, the dismissed army chief, Ri Yong Ho, was one of the chosen few walking alongside the car carrying the body of North Korea's late leader, Kim Jong Il. He was a key figure smoothing the power transition to the young successor, Kim Jong Un, so his precipitous fall sends a powerful message. No one knows the reason, but few believe he was ill, according to Daniel Pinkston in Seoul for the International Crisis Group.

DANIEL PINKSTON: I don't think he was plotting or against the regime or against Kim Jong Un, but it's not impossible. But more likely, I think he might have been involved in some kind of corruption scandal. I think of the possibilities, that's a plausible one.

LIM: As the military lines up to swear loyalty, others posit this could be a fight over resources. Two civilians have been appointed to important army positions, with one of them gaining control over vital foreign currency business. Sheen Seongho from Seoul National University explains why this is important.

SHEEN SEONGHO: There was speculation about this power struggle between the military and the bureaucrat or civilian side over this, you know, important source of funding for the regime. The military has been dominating all those foreign trade, and now the civilian side try to take over that kind of very lucrative business.


LIM: Or it could also be a struggle over the country's very future itself. For years, North Korea has followed a policy of songun, or military first. Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has quietly emphasized the welfare of ordinary people. According to John McCreary, this reshuffle points to a new direction.

MCCREARY: To me, the military-first policy of his father has been quietly downgraded. My assessment at this point, based on the limited evidence I've seen to date, the underlying issue was probably military priorities. Should the military consume so much of national resources?

LIM: Chinese analysts, though, still believe the military-first policy is in place. But other changes are undeniably happening.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse. Hey, hey, hey.

LIM: Among them, the appearance of dancers dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse at a concert, where women in black mini-dresses also performed. These Western cultural icons were applauded by Kim and a female companion. It's not clear who she is, but a first lady would be a marked departure from the days of his father, who kept his personal life private and is only known to have given one speech in 17 years.


KIM JONG IL: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Kim Jong Un, however, has given several long speeches and appears more charismatic, more prone to hugging people. Daniel Pinkston cautions such changes are superficial.

PINKSTON: This is a simply a style change. But I would argue all of the structures, the political institutions, the indoctrination that goes on, all of those things are pretty much unchanged, so the system goes on as it was going on before.


LIM: Soldiers dance in the square, an orchestrated demonstration of loyalty. A ripple of instability appears to have passed, but no one knows whether it's over yet or whether it will spread. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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