North Korean military chief ‘removed’
Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — North Korea has relieved its army chief of all government posts because of an “illness,” the state-run news agency said Monday, prompting speculation of a possible power struggle within the secretive regime.
The military official, Ri Yong Ho, was believed to be one of the closest aides to the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, who assumed power in December following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Ri is considered to have helped Kim Jong Un consolidate power in the ensuing months. The two men and several other top officials led the funeral procession for Kim Jong Il in December.
As well as being chief of the army, Ri held several key government posts, including vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Korean Central News Agency said in its report Monday.
KCNA said the decision to relieve Ri of all posts was made at a meeting of senior officials the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Sunday. It did not elaborate on his illness.
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One observer of North Korea said he believed this move could represent a struggle betweenthe powerful military and the civilian elite in North Korea.
Professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in South Korea says the announcement could show the power of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Taek, who was seen as a crucial influence overseeing Kim Jong Un’s succession.
“This follows a pattern we have seen since at least last March,” Lankov said. “People who can be described as the Jang Song Taek group are taking the upper hand. It seems Jang Song Taek may be removing people who might constitute a threat to him.”
The removal of Ri may signify the first purge under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, Lankov said. “Not necessarily a bloody one, but the first case of a person of great political significance being removed.”
Ri was appointed as chief of the army in February 2009, according to a KCNA report at the time.
CNN’s Tim Schwarz contributed to this report.