Kim Jong-un removes general in North Korea army 'purge'

Kim Jong-un has removed his own mentor from all duties because of 'illness', but analysts believe it is a power grab

LAST UPDATED AT 10:43 ON Mon 16 Jul 2012

NORTH KOREAN despot Kim Jong-un has removed his mentor, Ri Yong-ho, from power in what analysts believe could be the start of a purge of the country's top brass by the young leader as he bids to consolidate his hold over the military seven months after he came to power on the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

As a member of the five-strong Politburo standing committee, Ri was one of the most powerful men in North Korea, The Financial Times reports, but no more. State mouthpiece KCNA reports that he has been relieved of all his duties, including his positions as head of the army and vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.

KCNA says Ri, 69, has been removed from his posts because of ill-health, but analysts are sceptical. An apparently healthy Ri was seen in public with Kim just over a week ago and sickness is not always a problem for officials who enjoy the favour of North Korea's leader.

Dan Pinkston of the International Crisis Group said: "There are several examples of senior figures being ill and not being removed from office. Out of respect for the person, they would let the deputy take over."

He believes it likely that the move is an attempt by Kim Jong-un to strengthen his grip on the army. "There's a very high probability that it wasn't health issues but that he was purged," said Pinkston.

Chang Yong-suk, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, appears similarly sceptical. He told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency: "We cannot rule out the possibility that Ri was dismissed on account of Kim Jong-un's unsatisfactory military grip or as a result of a power struggle in North Korea."

Whatever the truth of Ri's early (by North Korean standards) retirement, he can perhaps count himself lucky. As The New York Times's Choe Sang-hun writes: "The inner workings of political power in North Korea are shrouded in mystery, with top officials often demoted, made to disappear, reinstated or killed in suspicious 'traffic accidents'.

"Ensuring such unpredictability in any general's career has been seen as a crucial method used by the Kim family dynasty to tame generals and party secretaries." · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.