Deaths Force Changes for Kim Jong-il

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea's vice defense minister died of illness, North Korean state media reported, just days after the demise of the defense minister and other leadership upheavals.

Analysts Thursday said the death of Kim Kwang-jin, 69, would force the pace of transition to a new generation of commanders of the 1.1 million-strong People's Armed Forces, still widely feared as the greatest threat to peace in Asia.

It was the latest in a series of deaths among the military's revolutionary old guard, seen as staunch supporters of the country's uncrowned leader Kim Jong-il.

Kim Kwang-jin, first vice minister of the armed forces and a member of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party, died of "incurable disease," the Korean Central News Agency reported Friday.

Kim's superior, Choe Kwang, died of a heart attack just a week ago, North Korean official media announced.

Thus, in quick succession, North Korea has lost two of the most powerful figures in a military hierarchy that has a key role to play in cementing the hold on power of Kim Jong-il, son of "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

Earlier this month, North Korea's prime minister was replaced -- apparently for health reasons -- and chief ideologue Hwang Jang-yop defected to South Korea's mission in Beijing.

"For the armed forces, the death of the two top officials is a serious blow," said Noriyuki Suzuki, North Korean analyst at Japan's Radiopress news agency.