North Korea’s top military official — a key mentor to young new leader Kim Jong-un who served under his father — has been removed from all posts because of illness, state media yesterday said in a surprise announcement that shakes the core of the authoritarian country’s power structure.
Ri Yong-ho had looked healthy in recent appearances, and his departure fed speculation among analysts that Kim purged him in an effort to put his own mark on the nation he inherited seven months ago when his father Kim Jong-il died. At the same time, there was no sign of discord at Ri’s last public appearance at a high-level event, barely a week ago.
The decision to dismiss the 69-year-old from top military and political posts was made at a Workers’ Party meeting on Sunday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. It was not immediately clear who would take Ri’s place, and the dispatch did not elaborate on his condition or future.
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group, was skeptical of the illness claim, in part because of Ri’s recent apparent health. He also said Ri won his major promotions at a September 2010 party conference, but received none in April, which stirred speculation about the general’s future.
“There’s a very high probability that it wasn’t health issues, but that he was purged,” sending a strong signal to anyone seeking to challenge Kim Jong-un — even if Ri never directly defied the new leader, Pinkston said.
The dismissal comes as Kim Jong-un makes waves in other ways. State TV showed him appearing at a music concert and visiting a kindergarten recently in the company of a mysterious woman who carried herself much like a first lady. Her identity has not been revealed, but her public presence was a notable change from Kim Jong-il’s era, when his companions were kept out of state media.
The state of North Korea’s -million-man army, one of the world’s largest, is studied closely in South Korea, which stations many of its more than 600,000 troops along the world’s most heavily armed border, and in Washington, which keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea.
North Korea has repeatedly threatened in recent months to attack South Korea’s president and Seoul’s conservative media, angry over perceived insults to its leadership and US-South Korean military drills that Pyongyang says are a prelude to an invasion. A North Korean artillery attack in 2010 killed four South Koreans and raised fears of war.
Ri was vice marshal and chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army. In 2010, he was promoted to key political posts in the Workers’ Party, including top spots on the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party and the Presidium of the party’s influential Political Bureau. That boosted him to the highest political circles — along with Kim Jong-un, Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek and other trusted members of Kim Jong-il’s circle of advisers.
Ri had been at Kim Jong-un’s side since the young man emerged publicly as his father’s successor in 2010, often standing between father and son at major events. He was among the small group of men who accompanied Kim Jong-il’s hearse through snowy Pyongyang during the funeral procession.
In the months after Kim Jong-un took power, he accompanied the new ruler on his first trips to visit military units in a pointed show of continuity and military support as Kim Jong-un sought to shore up the backing of the nation’s troops.