Professor James Hoare of the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) in London was speaking after analysis published on the 38 North website by Markus V Garlauskas, a former US National Intelligence Officer for North Korea. Mr Garlauskas suggests Ri Pyong Chol, the former commander of the Korean People’s Army Air Force, may now be Kim’s right-hand man, pointing to the fact that he was pictured sat next to the Supreme Leader at a closed-door meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on July 18.
Mr Hoare told Express.co.uk: “One has to be careful about reading too much into appearances or where people stand.
“North Korea is not as rigid on these matters as the Soviet Union used to be.
“If there was a sudden change in policy, Ri might disappear from the limelight again.
“But for the present, the military seem to be the flavour of the month.”
Prof Hoare added: “It may be concern over domestic security, though there is no evidence of any sort of breakdown.
“Personally, I think it is showing to the world that it had better treat North Korea seriously now that it is a nuclear power.
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“Perhaps a message for US presidential candidates.
“But it also shows Kim Jong-un as a military leader, which may be aimed at a domestic audience.”
During the course of his article, Mr Garlauskas, whose article included a picture of Kim hugging Ri after a successful missile test in 2016, said: “He was also the only participant mentioned by name in the KCNA report of these events besides Kim himself, further indicating that Ri’s leadership role as vice chairman clearly set him above and apart from the other members of the CMC.”
Mr Garlauskas also suggested Ri’s appointment may be linked to plans for more missile tests.
He explained: “It is very unlikely that Kim re-created the role of the CMC vice chairman, and appointed an official with extensive experience overseeing the development, testing and fielding of new strategic weapons, without a plan in mind.
“Since January, the Kim regime has been publicly signalling its intention to not only continue producing existing strategic weapons systems, but to unveil and test new ones; the rise of Ri Pyong Chol at the same time reinforces that this is more than mere rhetoric.
“If ‘personnel are policy’ in Pyongyang, then Ri’s latest promotions indicate the regime’s policy is to push forward with the production, development and testing of strategic weapons.
“If Kim makes the decision to deliver on his warning by unveiling a new strategic weapon, Ri is likely to be responsible for preparing and directing the operation, whether this is through a parade, a realistic test launch or something in between.”
Earlier this week a leaked UN report suggested North Korea was preparing to deploy miniaturised nuclear devices on the warheads of its ballistic missiles.
A week earlier, Kim, back in the public eye after persistent rumours of his death earlier this year, bragged about the awesome firepower he has at his fingertips.
He told veterans gathered for a ceremony marking mark the 67th anniversary of the end of the Korean War: “Now, we’ve changed to a country which can defend itself reliably and unwaveringly against high-intensity pressures and military threats and blackmailing by imperialistic reactionaries and hostile forces.
“There won’t be any war on this land again and our national security and future will be guaranteed firmly and permanently because of our reliable, effective self-defensive nuclear deterrent.”