By Nicholas Hamisevicz
The surprise news to start the week is that Vice Marshall Ri Yong Ho, chief of the general staff of North Korea’s army as well as a member of the Political Bureau and the Central Military Commission, was relieved of all his positions due to “illness.” During the last year of Kim Jong-il’s life, Ri Yong Ho was seen as a key advisor to Kim Jong-un during the transition. Following the death of Kim Jong-il, Ri Yong Ho was a leader to watch as he appeared to be a close confidant and guardian for Kim Jong-un in his new role as leader of North Korea. Now, as with almost all of the leadership moves that occur during this initial transition phase under Kim Jong-un, the removal of Ri Yong Ho will be analyzed and scrutinized to better understand the leadership style of Kim Jong-un, the actual power players in the new regime, and the role of the military.
Many decisions coming from Pyongyang often bring about more questions than answers; this news is no different. With Ri Yong Ho having now been removed, the critical questions will be how Kim Jong-un and key leaders in the regime will control the military and where will Kim Jong-un gets his military advice? These questions will play a crucial role in future North Korean interaction with its neighbors and the United States.
The statement from KCNA about Ri Yong Ho being relieved of his duties due to illness initially suggests a purge. If so, it is likely he had fallen out of favor. Evidence to support this theory would be that he did not get many new positions in April during the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and National Defense Commission (NDC) meetings.
Vice Marshall Ri being purged because of corruption could also be a possibility. The North Korean Leadership Watch blog notes that “illness” “can be a party center euphemism for insubordination or corruption.” Being at the axis of three important power bases in the military, the Party’s Central Military Commission, and the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, would provide Ri Yong Ho quality access, influence, and power where corruption, or damaging high-profile corruption, could be a temptation.
Lastly, though less likely, “illness” could simply mean illness. North Korea Leadership Watch again noticed Ri Yong Ho looking like his health was declining and making fewer public appearances. Although 70 is not that old by North Korean leadership standards, the overall average age of North Korean leaders has been declining since 2008; therefore, there could still be a slight possibility Ri Yong Ho is actually sick, or it is time for him to retire.
Yet a purge is still the most likely scenario. Ri was on the opposite side of Kim Jong-il’s hearse from Kim Jong-un and was viewed as an advisor for the young leader. His sudden removal could signal trouble in the transition or an acceptable switch to a new group of leaders.
One of the suggestions is that Ri Yong Ho wasn’t in favor of deploying military resources for infrastructure projects. Interestingly, the very next article on the KCNA website is about Kim Jong-un sending a message of thanks to a unit of North Korea’s internal security forces for working on construction projects. The article also described Kim Jong-un as “Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army,” as opposed to the previous article about Kim Jong-un visiting a kindergarten, where the title used for him is “first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.” A July 14 KCNA article describes Kim Jong-un having his photo taken with “exemplary soldiers of the Korean People’s Internal Security Forces who performed labor feats in major construction projects.” Ri Yong Ho was not listed among the other leaders present.
If it is a purge, Ri Yong Ho’s removal because of disagreement over the proper use of military troops or any other policy will be felt internally. Externally, the removal of Ri Yong Ho for whatever reason also creates a question of where Kim Jong-un will get his military advice. An answer will likely emerge from North Korea’s relationship with South Korea and the United States, especially as the two countries move into the heated final stretch of their respective presidential campaign seasons.
Provocations from North Korea during this transition time have been a concern for both the U.S. and South Korea, especially while the prospect of a nuclear test continues to linger after the failed missile launch. Without Ri Yong Ho’s military advice, which leader with actual military experience, not just being given the title of general, will Kim Jong-un turn to? Will his new group of advisors be able to properly calculate threats and provocations with South Korea and avoid mishandling a potentially stronger response from South Korea to a major attack on its soil or interests? However, internally, we will have to wait to see the impact of his removal. Ri Yong Ho’s “illness” has made Kim Jong-un’s transition even more interesting, and once again, has left us with more questions than answers on North Korea.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.