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A changing of the old guard in North Korea?

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North Korea's top three military officials have been dismissed, a US official reported on 3 June. This new decision comes the week before the much-anticipated summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. These dismissals seem to suggest that Kim Jong-un is showcasing his desire to discuss nuclear disarmament without dissent.

The three officials have been identified as defence chief Pak Yong-sik, chief of the Korean People's Army's (KPA) general staff, Ri Myong-su, and the director of the KPA's General Political Bureau, Kim Jong-gak. US officials believe the dismissals were due to these men disagreeing with Kim Jong-un on relations with South Korea and the US.

North Korea is an authoritarian state, often described as Stalinesque, run by Kim Jong-un and his family for the past three generations. The country has remained isolated from the rest of the world since the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South after WW2, and views nuclear weapons as essential to its protection from the outside world. However, this isolation seems to finally be changing, as Kim Jong-un met his South Korean counterpart in April in a historic summit, has reached out to China and Russia, and is now due to meet Trump for a summit.

Until January, Trump and Kim communicated aggressively, through a series of explosive tweets. Relations then warmed considerably, with Kim halting nuclear and missile tests and blowing up the country's nuclear testing site. Consequently, the summit was announced on 10 May. Tensions rose again later that same month, and Trump cancelled the summit, allegedly due to Pyongyang's "open hostility". However, this was only brief, and days later Trump welcomed North Korea's former Intelligence Chief and Vice-Chairman of the ruling Workers' party, Kim Yong-chol, to the White House. Despite this, it is still uncertain whether the summit will actually take place.

Relations between North Korea and the US remain unstable. It is unsure what Kim hopes to gain from his relations with the outside world. Trump has said he hopes the talks will lead to nuclear disarmament in North Korea. In return for disarmament, economic sanctions would be lifted, which would benefit North Korea's economy. Equally, North Korea is a country steeped in human rights violations. The state has control over everything including the media. It spies on its people, prevents defection, and falsely portrays global events. While, shortages of food, fuel, and basic necessities are hidden behind a well-funded nuclear programme. It is highly unlikely that any of these violations will be discussed at the summit. Is it for economic reasons that Kim has finally looked beyond his sheltered country, or does he want something else from the international community? Are his dismissals of military officials a sign of willingness to discuss or a further example of his totalitarian regime? Should Kim be trusted to give up his nuclear weapons or is this a ploy to trick the world and distract us from the dire conditions in his country? All of this remains unclear.

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