But North Korea watchers in Seoul, Washington and Beijing quickly cast doubt on the state’s story, noting that Ri, 69, had made several high-profile public appearances earlier this month and looked healthy. Typically, experts say, the North allows its senior officials to hold their jobs even when they have terminal illnesses. Ri was dismissed following a rare Sunday meeting that brought together a handful of the country’s top decision-makers, the North said.
“My initial reaction is, this is a political move,” said Ken Gause, an Alexandria-based analyst specializing in North Korea’s leadership.
Ri’s potential purge marks the highest-profile leadership change under Kim Jong Eun, who rose to power last December after the death of Kim Jong Il, eventually inheriting the same supreme positions once used by his father and grandfather atop their brutal police state.
Viewed from the outside, Kim’s ascension has triggered no clear signs of dissent. Analysts note that Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, has quietly built up his own support network, naming a new generation of officials to head the various military and state security groups that run surveillance throughout the country — and would crush any opposition.
Since 2010 — the year Kim Jong Eun was anointed as leader-in-waiting — the North has named new leaders to the Ministry of People’s Security, the Ministry of State Security, the Military Security Command, the General Political Bureau, and now the Korean People’s Army, Gause said.
These groups have the ability to “monitor disturbances inside the regime,” Gause said. “If you’re starting to put the pieces together, it would suggest the beginnings of a purge within the high command — a signal that the Kim family is trying to get a firm grip on the agencies within the government that can use violence” to snuff out dissent.
Ri’s fall was particularly sudden. Ri commanded an army to which the North funnels one-quarter of its GDP, intelligence experts say. He also was one of five standing members of the Politburo and one of two vice chairmen (directly under Kim Jong Eun) on the Central Military Commission.
When Kim Jong Eun was first introduced in September 2010 to the North Korean public, Ri sat between the young Kim and his father for a group photo. A year later, during Kim Jong Il’s funeral, Ri stood alongside the hearse. This year, Ri joined Kim on trips to various theater performances, military outposts, and national monuments — including a July 8 visit to the mausoleum where Kim Il Sung lies in state.
The Kim family has long used purges to maintain power and weed out potential rivals, but the methods are typically less public, a banishment to a labor camp or a mysterious car accident. North Korea, in this case, mentioned Ri’s removal but gave no word about his replacement.
“I think it’s very very unlikely that he was involved in some kind of coup plot,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group. “If that was the case, he’d just disappear — he’d be dead.”
Rather, Pinkston said, Ri was perhaps booted over a smaller disagreement that led to a loss of trust. The North’s army is involved in everything from mining to real estate to arm’s sales, an open invitation for senior leaders to skim money on deals.
“I could imagine a situation where he was maybe too greedy,” Pinkston said. “He’s been described as an ambitious person.”
Shortly after the announcement of Ri’s dismissal, the North’s state media published a message of thanks to the military from Kim Jong Eun for “tremendous feats in major construction projects.” Some analysts speculated that Ri, a noted hardliner who spoke frequently about the country’s military-first policy, would be opposed to any economic reforms.
Experts caution that Kim himself has shown no clear preference for reform and would face significant obstacles if he wanted to create major social change. Much of the North’s 24 million people are impoverished and food-deprived, but Kim is surrounded by a group of elderly elites who benefit from the system and receive the vast proportion of the country’s scant resources.
“I don’t think Ri was purged because he has a different opinion from Kim Jong Eun on the route North Korea should take,” said Li Yongchun, a Korea researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. “Besides Ri, there are a bunch of hard liners in the party. It is true that Ri is one important hard-nosed figure in the party, but it’s impossible for Kim Jong Eun to have any reform just by beating Ri Yong Ho.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.