North Korea's military chief Ri Yong Ho has been removed from all official positions, the state KCNA news agency said Monday, amid speculations he might have been purged in a power struggle seven months after the death of dictator Kim Jong Il.
Vice Marshal Ri, believed to be close to Kim, was removed as vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission and from the political bureau presidium, the ruling Workers' Party of Korea's highest body, the KCNA said in a surprise announcement.
It cited "illness" as the reason for his removal, but the 70-year-old Ri had appeared in public just a week ago and showed no sign of ill-health.
He was seen with Kim's young successor son, Kim Jong Un, and senior military officials paying tribute to North Korean founder Kim Il Sung on the July 8 anniversary of his death in 1994.
Ri had backed and nurtured the junior Kim since the December death of his father, who ruled the secretive state for 17 years. He was among a select few party and military cadres who accompanied Kim Jong Un when he walked alongside the hearse carrying the body of his father.
The KCNA said top officials of the ruling party decided on Ri’s fate at a weekend politburo meeting. It did not name his successor or elaborate on his illness.
The "most plausible" reason for Ri's departure is that he may have been purged after being defeated in a power struggle in the North’s inner circle, The Korea Times, a South Korean newspaper, said in an opinion piece hours after Pyongyang's announcement.
Analysts say his unrivaled status began to crumble in April, when Choe Ryong Hae, the son of Choe Hyon who served as the North’s defense minister from 1968 to 1976, received important promotions, the paper said.
At the time, Choe surfaced as a strongman, becoming vice marshal, a member of the Politburo Presidium of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, and director of the KPA General Political Bureau.
Jang Seong Thaek, current leader Kim's powerful uncle, may have plotted with Choe to kick out Ri if he had fallen out of favor with the Kim, The Korea Times said.
"This raises the possibility that North Korea’s military may have been taken over by Jang who is often called the real power in North Korea," the paper said.
Jang is married to Kim Jong Il's sister and is believed to be the chief adviser to his nephew, who is believed to be in his late 20s.
"The reason would be all speculation, but you might say Ri may have tried to firm up his own position which may have been to the dislike of Jang Song Thaek and Choe Ryong Hae," according to Cho Min of South Korea's Institute for National Unification, who studies the North's leadership and its tactics, Reuters reported.
The military chief has always been a powerful figure, especially since Kim Jong Il elevated the army's role under his "songun" military-first policy.
The junior Kim may be seeking to strengthen the party's control over the million-man army, one of the world's largest, which had become too powerful under the "songun" policy of his father, Agence France-Presse quoted Paik Hak-Soon of the Sejong Institute as saying.
"Jong Un will make sure that now the party keeps the overgrown military under check-—an effort his father started in late 2010 before he died," he said.
"Ri is an old fixture from the father's generation. Jong-Un will likely replace him with someone younger and closer to the Party ... someone he can control more easily," Paik said.
Reported by RFA's Korean service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.