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Ri Yong Ho Dismissed: Will There be Changes in the Power Structure of North Korea?
By Jeon Byeong-yeok
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There seemed to be no stopping Ri Yong Ho (70), a power figure under Kim Jong-un. Ri occupied a top seat on the Presidium of the Political Bureau (Workers' Party) and was also Chief of General Staff of the Korean People's Army.

However, on July 15, he was dismissed from his positions, bringing rise to various speculations. Most of the attention is on why Ri was removed. Was Ri's dismissal the result of ill health or was it the result of something bigger, such as a power struggle between the party and the military?

The Korean Central News Agency reported on July 16 that, "The Central Committee of the Workers' Party opened a meeting of the Political Bureau on July 15, and decided to remove Ri Yong Ho for health reasons from all his posts including Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission and his seat on the Presidium of the Political Bureau."

Kim Jong-un, First Secretary of the Workers' Party is talking with Choe Ryong Hae (center), director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army and Ri Yong Ho (left), Chief of General Staff, while observing a formal military inspection in Kim Il-sung Square on April 15, the centennial anniversary of the birth of Premier Kim Il-sung (North Korea). Yonhap News

The news agency did not give detailed accounts of the reason for Ri's dismissal arousing curiosity. Also they did not state whether Ri was also dismissed from his position as the Chief of General Staff.

A Ministry of Unification official merely assumed, "The National Defense Commission, a state organization, usually makes decisions regarding personnel in the Korean People's Army. But based on the unusual decision to ‘remove Ri from all his posts,' he was probably dismissed from his position as Chief of General Staff as well."

The dismissal of Ri Yong Ho came suddenly deviating from everyone's expectations. After all, Ri played a major role in ensuring a stable journey through the political changes in North Korea, from the enthroning of Kim Jong-un and the death of Kim Jung-il, former Chairman of the National Defense Commission, to the official establishment of Kim Jong-un's government.

Considering that Ri accompanied Kim Jong-un until just a week before his dismissal, it is highly likely that this is not a simple health issue. Ri was at Kim Jong-un's side on July 8, when they paid respects at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the 18th anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung.

However, in the Political Bureau (plenary) meeting, which was held on Sunday, Ri lost all his positions and this fact was made public by the state's official news agency the following morning on July 16.

At a meeting with the press, the ministry official stated, "In North Korea when someone has health problems, they usually take their time in making changes in personnel, and they don't dismiss someone from all his posts simultaneously. This is quite peculiar and sudden."
Major interest is on whether there was individual or organizational resistance or power struggles from Ri Yong Ho and the military.

In this Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, from left to right in front, North Korean leder Kim Jong-Il, Ri Yong Ho, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean army, Kim Jong-Un, the leader's youngest son and a four-star general, attend a concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea held a concert in Pyongyang on Thursday, to mark the traditional Lantern Festival of the lunar year of 2011, together with some Chinese guests in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Gao Haorong)

Chang Yong Suk, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, observed, "It could be a power struggle between Ri Yong Ho, a professional soldier, and Choe Ryong Hae, a civilian, rather than a group opposition by the military; or Ri's lack of competence could have been exposed in the process of seizing the military."

Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute claimed, "It seems likely that Ri Yong Ho was dismissed resisting the party's control of the military by Choe Ryong Hae. The party will probably strengthen its hold on the military."

While Ri was the key figure in enthroning Kim Jong-un according to his father, Kim Jung-il's blueprint, Choe, who is on the Presidium of the Political Bureau and also the director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, is the key figure in Kim Jong-un's government.

According to North Korea's military system, Chief of General Staff Ri receives party guidance from the director of the General Political Bureau Choe.

Ri's dismissal seems to have brought along structural changes in the party. The Central Commission of the Workers' Party announced, "Organizational problems were handled in the meeting."

Since Choe and Ri were both Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Ri's dismissal may mean the removal of one of these positions. Attention is on whether a seat on the Presidium of the Political Bureau will also be eliminated or whether they will appoint a successor.

South Korean officials are taking this recent change seriously, since it is the dismissal of Ri Yong Ho, a member of the eight who escorted Chairman Kim's hearse and a figure who closely accompanied Kim Jong-un, and because this was announced through North Korea's official news agency.

The ministry official announced, "There could have been some unreasonable measures or actions (on the part of Ri). We are keeping a close eye on North Korea to identify any signs of internal instability or any plans to take hostile actions towards the South to strengthen their solidarity."

Copyright The Kyunghyang Shinmun. All rights reserved. Reproduction and redistribution without permission absolutely prohibited.

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