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North Korea's Kim Jong-il names new defence minister

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has named a new defence chief, state media said on Wednesday, replacing a close confidant with another to set him up as one of the unquestioned leader’s more powerful aides.

Vice Marshal Kim Yong-chun was appointed new minister of the People’s Armed Forces, the North’s official KCNA news agency said, replacing Kim Il-chol who had been in the post since 2000.

An expert at the South’s Korea Institute for Defence Analyses said the move signalled the secretive North may be “preparing for the post Kim Jong-il era,” and the new defence chief is considered part of Kim’s closest circle of confidants.

But Baek Seung-joo said: “The post of the defence minister is not that high, when you consider the hierarchy in the North, where Kim Jong-il is the top military official,” adding it was too early to conclude what the move meant.

Kim Jong-il, 66, who is suspected of suffering a stroke in August, has no challengers to his leadership, analysts said, but the North has rearranged ministerial posts in the past few months -- changing the alignment of the distant trailing pack of officials who might eventually succeed him.

Kim Yong-chun has been vice chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission and the chief of the General Staff of the Korea People’s Army.

North Korea customarily makes military personnel appointments in April. A meeting in March of its parliament is expected to reaffirm Kim Jong-il as the country’s supreme military commander.

The appointment of the new defence chief may be part of a campaign to drum up political support for Kim, Baek said.

North Korea has been stirring up tension in the past days by making moves to prepare for missile launches and threatening to reduce the South to ashes in what analysts said was a bid to grab the attention of new U.S. President Barack Obama and pressure Seoul to drop its hardline toward its neighbour.