select languages
NorthKorea_titleN.K. NewsletterVantagePointlmenu_bottom
latestnewslatestnews RSS
Home > NorthKorea
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 219 (July 19, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea's Military Chief Ri Yong-ho Dismissed amid Possible Power Struggle

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In a quite unusual and abrupt manner, North Korea on July 16 announced the dismissal of its military chief Ri Yong-ho from all official posts due to illness, sparking speculation over a possible military power struggle.

   Known as one of the closest confidants of leader Kim Jong-un, Ri was dismissed during a ruling Workers' Party's meeting on July 15 as a member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the party and a vice-chairman of the party's Central Military Commission. Ri also lost his position as the army's chief of General Staff.

   Meanwhile on July 18, North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un was awarded the title of marshal, the supreme commander of the North's 1.2-million-strong army. In another announcement on July 17, a little-known general, Hyon Yong-chol, was promoted to the rank of vice marshal. North Korean state media confirmed on July 18 the appointment of Hyon as military chief, a post Ri was removed from.

   The abrupt departure of Ri is being interpreted by senior officials in Seoul as the first political purge by Kim Jong-un, who is believed to be reconfiguring the North's power structure in order to solidify his grip on power following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December.

   The 70-year-old Ri had risen from obscurity as Kim Jong-un started to be groomed to become the leader around 2009. He became the North Korean army's vice marshal and the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2010, one year after he took the position of the army's chief of General Staff.

   Ri, who was born in Tongchon, Kangwon Province in North Korea, joined the military in 1959 and was appointed lieutenant general of the Army in September 2003. He was promoted to general in 2009.

   He was one of eight top officials, including Kim Jong-un and Kim's uncle Jang Song-thaek, who escorted the funeral coach of Kim Jong-il. Ri has often appeared next to the new leader during the young leader's military inspection visits and other official occasions.

   While the dismissal heralds a major change in the North's military power structure, some analysts pointed out the removal could be politically motivated rather than a result of Ri's illness. The South Korean government sensed "unusualness" in the surprise personnel announcement and is skeptical about Ri's illness being cited as the reason for his exit from top military positions, a Unification Ministry official said.

   But the dismissal came as a surprise because Ri was believed to have played a central role in helping the inexperienced leader establish his foothold in the military since he was tapped as successor to his father Kim Jong-il in early 2009.

   According to South Korean officials, records show that the North usually gives a grace period before dismissing an ailing official. In the case of Jo Myong-rok, a top military official and a political heavyweight loyal to Kim Jong-il who died of heart disease in 2010 at the age of 82, he retained his post despite his age and health problems.

   The dismissal of a leading military figure could be a prelude to another reshuffle of top brass that would help the fledging leader Kim Jong-un further tighten his grip on the 1.2-million-strong military, experts said.

   Ri's standing had apparently declined amid the rise of Choe Ryong-hae, a longtime aide to the Kim dynasty who now heads the General Political Bureau of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA), the powerful military organ under the control of the ruling Workers' Party.

   Choe was the first civilian in decades to lead the influential organ. The bureau leads the crucial personnel management of other military bodies such as the North's Ministry of People's Armed Forces. Currently, Choe is also one of the five members of the standing committee of the party's politburo and the vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission.

   Experts said that Ri might have resisted the civilian-turned-general Choe becoming the centerpiece of the military leadership. "There appear to be signs of a power struggle. It is not that the North accepted his resignation, but dismissed him. The North would not have removed him from all crucial positions just because he's sick," said Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at think tank Sejong Institute.

   Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute also echoed Hong's view over the possible power struggle. "Chances are high that Ri was sacked after he resisted Kim's using Choe as a centerpiece of his efforts to control the military," he said.

   "It appears that the North is in the process of a generational change ― removing Ri and filling key military posts with relatively younger officers loyal to the young leader Kim," said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.

   On July 17, North Korea announced it had promoted Army Gen. Hyon Yong-chol to the post of vice marshal. The KCNA reported the announcement, which was made under the names of the ruling party's Central Military Commission and the top state organization National Defense Commission.

   Initially, the announcement promoted speculation that Hyon, considered an obscure military figure in the South, may take up the post of the general staff chief, which is equivalent to Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. It was confirmed on July 18 by the North Korean broadcasters that Hyon was named the chief of the General Staff to replace Ri Yong-ho.
Hyon, who is presumed to be in his early 60s, is known to have served in the 8th Army Corps since 2006. The corps is in charge of guarding the communist state's northwestern areas including those near the border with China. Hyon was elected as a member of the 12th Supreme People's Assembly, the North's rubber-stamp legislature in March 2009. He was made a lieutenant general in February 2002.

   Hyon was promoted to a four-star general in September 2010 when Kim Jong-un was also awarded the same rank in the North's first clear signal of the power transfer to Kim Jong-un.

   Hyon's surprise ascent to the core of the governing military class also heralds a far-reaching reshuffle or a shift in generations within the military, experts said. "Promoting a field-grade officer to a key military post signals that Kim Jong-un is attempting to reorganize the military structure with figures close to him," a senior government official said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

   As the core power group within the military, which is generally opposed to change, has been weakened by the new developments, economic improvement measures that the North is reportedly reviewing could now get a boost, the official noted.

   But the disgruntled military officials could also bring about serious political unrest should they try to speak out and launch a counterattack, he said. Going forward, Kim, who is not yet 30, could give favors to military officers with a political background rather than only to those with military careers, Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said. Baek added that the political department of the armed forces is expected to play a greater role in the communist state.

   Although Kim Jong-un officially stuck to his father's military-first politics, the party's growing control of the army and the fall of Vice Marshal Ri may soften North Korea's external policy, an analyst said.

   Observers said that the fledgling leader appears to be in the process of replacing military figures appointed by his father with those he can more easily control and use in his drive to shore up the impoverished state.

   Some experts said that given that there are still generals in their 70s and 80s, the young leader could reduce the number of generals, which currently stands at around 1,400.

   Meanwhile, the White House said on July 16 that it would not pay heed to the sudden dismissal of North Korea's military chief. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney instead stressed that the U.S. will judge North Korea's intentions based on its actions, not such a personnel move in "one of the world's most opaque governments and societies."

   The U.S. State Department also made little of related press reports. "We're not in a position to comment on the accuracy of these news reports, but changes in personnel absent a fundamental change in direction mean little," department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.

   He emphasized that North Korea should take steps including "verifying all denuclearization and addressing the needs of its people by educating and feeding them rather than pouring scarce resources into nuclear missile and other military programs."

   China, the staunchest ally of North Korea, have not yet give any official response to the dismissal of Ri, but its state media prominently covered the North Korean military reshuffle.

   The Global Times, operated by China's People's Daily, carried Ri's dismissal in the front page under the title "North Korea's abrupt dismissal of Ri startled the West." In the article, the newspaper also introduced foreign media reports that there is a hidden agenda in the dismissal of Ri, who had earned the trust of Kim and had been prominent military figure.