North Korean leader Kim (R) exchanging smiles with former chief of staff Ri Yong-ho during a parade in Pyongyang. REUTERS photo
North Korea’s army chief has been removed from all his posts due to illness, state media announced yesterday, which analysts said showed new leader Kim Jong-un tightening his control over the powerful military, Agence France-Presse reported.
Ri Yong-ho is regarded as one of the key figures who supported the young, untested leader in the transition following the death in December of his father Kim Jong-il who ruled the reclusive state for 17 years. Ri was removed from the political bureau presidium, the party’s highest body with a handful of members, and his post as a vice-chairman of the central military commission, the North’s official KCNA news agency said.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. The regime’s quick announcement on Ri, 69, was “very unusual,” prompting Seoul to keep an eye on the North’s next move, said Kim Hyung-Suk, spokesman for the South’s unification ministry handling cross-border affairs. Signal to anyone who challenges Kim: analyst
Observers say the outgoing vice marshal may have fallen out of favor with Kim Jong-un. 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, the Associated Press reported. 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. Ri became head of the North’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces, one of the world’s largest, in 2009 and had often been seen accompanying Kim Jong-un on visits to military bases this year.