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North Korea's removal of army chief seen as purge (+video)

Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho's fall from grace reveals deep rifts in the regime of young Kim Jong-un, who took over after the death of his long-ruling father in December.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / July 16, 2012

In this photo taken in April, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, looks over at North Korean People's Army senior officers, Vice Marshal and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Choe Ryong Hae, center, and Vice Marshal and the military's General Staff Chief Ri Yong Ho, left, during a mass military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea said Monday that it has relieved Ri Yong Ho from all posts because of illness.

Ng Han Guan/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

North Korea’s highest career military commander was abruptly relieved of all his duties and positions Sunday, ostensibly due to illness. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency offered that as the formal reason for relieving him in a high-level party meeting convened to talk about “the organizational issue.” 

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The top military leader who mentored North Korea's Kim Jong Un during the period where he took over from his late father has been dismissed from powerful posts. State media announced Ri Yong Ho's fate Monday.

The use of that ominous phrase left no doubt among analysts that Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the chief of staff of the country’s 1.2 million-man military establishment, had been purged. His fall from grace reveals deep rifts in the regime of “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un, who took over after the death of his long-ruling father, Kim Jong-il, in December.

The downfall of Mr. Ri raised the clear possibility of more power shifts, perhaps public, perhaps secret, as Kim Jong-un settles into a job for which he had no prior qualifications. While he has been making highly publicized appearances at military posts, factories, and farms, his real rapport with the aging men around him, most of them from the armed forces, is far from clear.

“Fasten your seat belts,” says Donald Clark, noted Korea scholar and international studies director at Trinity University in San Antonio. “There's turbulence ahead.”

The Korean Central News Agency, reporting the purge Monday in a bland 100-word dispatch, said simply that 69-year-old Vice Marshal Ri had been relieved of his posts due to “his illness." The dispatch pointedly listed all the posts that he had had to abandon, including membership in the presidium of the political bureau of the party’s central committee and, perhaps most important, the position of vice chairman of the party’s central military commission.

Analysts gave no credibility to the official explanation of “illness” considering that generals and senior officials often retain their posts well into their 70s and 80s. Cases in which top-level officials have simply retired, whether due to illness or old age, are virtually unknown.

Power struggle

The sense among analysts is that Ri’s apparent ouster represents the tip of the iceberg of a power struggle in which Kim Jong-un is battling to strengthen his grip over a leadership structure that may be in danger of fragmenting at the highest levels. Ri’s fall is especially shocking since he had been seen as the military leader whom Kim Jong-il, well before his death, had asked to smooth the transition of power to Kim Jong-un.

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