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Military chief's ouster may be power play by North Korean leader

July 16, 2012 |  9:44 am

Riyongho

BEIJING -- Analysts say the surprise dismissal of the North Korean military chief from his senior posts Monday may be a calculated political move aimed at cementing the absolute rule of the nation's new leader, Kim Jong Un.

North Korean state media announced Ri Yong Ho was relieved of his position because of illness, but it’s not unusual for senior leaders to keep their posts even if they are seriously debilitated.

The removal of Ri represents one of the most decisive moves yet by Kim Jong Un as he consolidates power after the death last year of his father, Kim Jong Il.

“Ri being a powerful figure has a chilling effect. It sends a signal to anyone in the system that no one is above Kim Jung Un and anyone can be targeted for removal,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Pinkston, who recently returned from visiting North Korea, said cities and the countryside are already inundated with images of the new leader, estimated to be in his late 20s, painted on billboards and even mountainsides.

“In April there was no propaganda,” Pinkston said. “Now it’s a full-blown personality cult .… If internally there had been any resistance, confusion, split factions or challenges, this would not have been rolled out so quickly.”

At stake for Kim is control of a fragile, hermetic country whose economy appears to be teetering on disaster. The untested leader must navigate between entrenched interest groups such as elite political families and the military to maintain his hold.

Some analysts suspect Ri’s dismissal was primarily an attempt to rein in one of the largest armies in the world -- one that had benefited under a national policy that ensured they received scarce resources before civilians.

“North Korea has always put the military first,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean studies in Seoul. “The military was supposed to improve the economy and livelihood of the people but they failed to do so. Ri might have assumed the responsibility and decided to step down.”

Another possibility is that Ri was simply pushed out in a power struggle in favor of another military official who would ultimately be more beholden to Kim, Yang said.

Pinkston said there were rumors that Ri was overly ambitious, which may have been politically damaging in a top-down regime like North Korea’s. Ri was not shy about discussing foreign policy. On a visit to Cuba in 2010, he pledged to defend the island nation in an armed conflict with the U.S.

“Someone like him stepping out of his boundaries like that was striking,” Pinkston said.

Ri was reportedly voted out in a special meeting Sunday. His removal comes at a time when North Korea watchers have been buzzing about possible changes in the closed-off country under Kim’s rule. Among them: female workers wearing shorter skirts and a concert on state television where an electric violinist played the theme song to “Rocky” while Disney characters appeared behind on a screen. 

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-- David Pierson in Beijing and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul

Photo: Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, left, bows to new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15. Ri has been removed from his senior posts, it was reported Monday. Pictured at center is Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae. Credit: Ng Han Guan / Associated Press

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