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.”
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.
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.
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.
In that spirit, Ri was one of the seven highest-level military figures seen walking beside the large black Lincoln Continental carrying the coffin of Kim Jong-il. Ri, named a vice marshal nearly two years ago, was also seen with other high officials ranged beside Kim Jong-un on the balcony overlooking Kim Il-sung Square in central Pyongyang April 15 during a massive ceremony celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Just as many analysts were beginning to believe that Kim Jong-un had assumed power with relatively little internal opposition, the evident ouster of Ri raises questions about the nature of the divisions among North Korea’s leadership. There are, however, no sure answers.
“The regime is not stable,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “Kim Jong-un has maybe 70 percent of the power of his father. The remaining 30 percent is an empty void.”
Speculation focuses on the role of the inner figure sometimes seen to have the most influence – Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the national defense commission and husband of Kim Jong-il’s younger sister. Mr. Jang has often been mentioned as likely to be exercising the greatest influence over Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s and inexperienced in party affairs and government.
Ri’s dismissal suggested a gulf between the leadership of the armed forces and that of the party and the government. A career military man, Ri was often assumed to harbor doubts about the rise to high rank of a number of people with no military background.
Kim Jong-il before he died gave the rank of general to Kim Jong-un and his wife. Another nonmilitary man, Choe Yong-hae, also given the rank of general, has risen to the post of chief of the political bureau of the army, making him a highly influential figure over the armed forces with daily direct access to Kim Jong-un.
Another sign of the internal struggle is that U Dong-chuk, the general who was widely viewed as running the national security agency, vanished from sight four months ago – three months after he was seen as one of the seven generals walking beside Kim Kong-il’s hearse.
Analysts are far from certain, though, if Kim Jong-un is gaining or losing in the struggle. “We wonder if Ri’s dismissal means weakness or strength,” says Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts by shortwave from Seoul into the North. “As far as I know, Ri was number two next to Kim Jong-un.”
Mr. Ha, now a member of South Korea's National Assembly from the ruling conservative party, believes that “people around Kim Jong-un envied him" – that is, Vice Marshal Ri.
Ha interprets the North Korean report of discussion of “an organizational issue” as reflecting deep differences. “It’s not an organizational problem,” he says. “It’s a political problem.”