Top military man out as Kim Jong-un purges North Korea’s power elite
HE was the guardian figure always at the side of North Korea’s young new leader. As head of the army, his experience and position lent Kim Jong-un credibility with the troops. Now, Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho is out, dismissed from several powerful posts because of “illness,” state media said yesterday.
Ri did not appear ill in recent appearances, feeding speculation that Kim purged him in an effort to put his own mark on the nation he inherited when father Kim Jong-il died in December. 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.
But his removal shakes the core of the authoritarian regime’s power structure and may be a sign that Kim is increasing his grip on power, just as his father and grandfather, founding leader Kim Il-sung, did in their eras.
The decision to dismiss the 69-year-old from top military and political posts was made at a Workers’ Party meeting, convened unusually on Sunday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
“Whether because of a physical malady or political sin, Ri Yong Ho is out, and Pyongyang is letting the world know to not expect to hear about him anymore,” said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.
Ri’s departure could mean he lost a power struggle with rising star Choe Ryong Hae, the military’s top political officer tasked with supervising the army, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
Choe, originally a Workers’ Party official, was handed several top jobs and was named a vice marshal in April. Ri had been anointed as Kim’s patron during the young man’s rise to power, Koh said. “But after Kim formally took power, Choe has emerged as No. 2.”
North Korea’s political and military reshuffles are mysterious, with officials sometimes dropping out of sight without explanation, while some stay in their posts until they die.
The dismissal comes as Kim 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 his father’s era, when his companions were kept out of state media.
In North Korea, the army chief has been a powerful figure since Kim Jong-il elevated the army’s role when he became leader in 1994. Kim has upheld his father’s songun military-first policy, but in April he also promoted younger officials with economic backgrounds to key party positions in line with his push to build up the nation’s economy.
Where Ri’s departure leaves North Korea’s million-man army, one of the world’s largest, remained unanswered. The Korean Peninsula has remained locked in a state of war and divided since a truce in 1953 ended three years of fighting.
Ri was vice marshal and chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army. In 2010, he was won top positions on the central military commission of the Workers’ Party and the Presidium of the party’s influential political bureau. That took him to the highest political circles.
Ri had been at Kim’s side since the young man emerged publicly as Kim Jong-il’s successor in 2010.
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