North Korean state media reported on Monday that Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of army staff, was relieved “from all of his posts” because of illness. Besides leading the army, Ri was a member of the presidium of the Politburo, a five member body that is considered the North Korean equivalent of an executive branch.
“Illness” can be a euphemism for corruption or insubordination, writes North Korean Leadership Watch. If Ri were really ill, “there would have been little point in appointing him to another position.”
While many DPRK elites can appear green around the gills, a cursory review of images of Vice Marshal Ri from the last three years do show a man in declining health.
Between 2003 and 2009, Ri commanded the defense forces around the capital of Pyongyang, a prestigious post that put him at the heart of the North Korean military apparatus. The next year, he was elevated to the Politburo and named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. He subsequently appeared in Kim Jong-il’s company on a number of public occasions, signaling his role as a shepherd of Kim Jong-un’s ascendancy.
If Ri was appointed by father Kim to shield his son from a challenge from the generals, Choe Ryong-hae was likely his guardian in the party. A longtime apparatchik, he was promoted to the rank of vice marshal despite his lack of army experience. With Ri, he often appeared on Kim’s side during military parades and other public events.
There was little evidence in recent months of a power struggle at the top of the North Korean regime, let alone between Choe and Ri even if they were vying for Kim’s attention. There have been signals that the new ruler is moving away from the “military first” doctrine of his father which may have alarmed the generals, including Ri, prompting his purge but that is speculation.
News of Ri’s replacement will tell us more about what is going on behind the scenes in Pyongyang but for now, it seems that Choe has the upper hand.