North Korea’s top military official – a key mentor to new leader Kim Jong Un who also served under his late father – has been removed from all posts because of illness, state media has announced.
The surprise announcement of Ri Yong Ho’s removal shakes the core of the authoritarian country’s power structure.
Mr Ri had looked healthy in recent appearances, and his departure fed speculation among analysts that
Mr Kim removed him in an effort to make his own mark on the nation he inherited seven months ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
At the same time, there was no sign of discord during Mr 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 is not immediately clear who will take Mr 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 sceptical over the illness claim, in part because of Mr Ri’s recent apparent health. He also said Mr Ri won his major promotions at a September 2010 party conference, but received none in April, which stirred speculation about the general’s future.
Mr Pinkston said: “There’s a very high probability that it wasn’t health issues, but that he was purged.”
This would send a strong signal to anyone seeking to challenge Kim Jong Un – even if Mr Ri did not directly defy the new leader, Mr Pinkston added.
The dismissal comes as Mr 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 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 as a deterrent.
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.