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Power struggle in N. Korea?

Publication Date : 18-07-2012


A serious power struggle appears to be under way in Pyongyang as Ri Young-ho, the North’s top military official, has been removed from all his posts in a most unusual way.

Ri was viewed as one of the guardians that the deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il picked to ensure a smooth power transfer to his heir and youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

But he was stripped of all his posts in the Workers’ Party, according to a brief dispatch of the North’s Korean Central News Agency on Monday. He was a member of the politburo’s standing committee, a member of the politburo and a vice-chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission.

The state news agency did not say whether Ri was also deprived of his military post - the army’s chief of general staff.

The announcement of the party’s decision on Ri was unusually quick. And the reason for his dismissal - “illness” - was dubious. News reports say Ri showed no sign of ill health when he was seen in public a week ago with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. His sudden removal is also an aberration given that Pyongyang normally does not divest an important figure of his posts simply because he is sick.

These circumstances strongly suggest Ri was purged as a result of a power struggle between the party and the military.

Many pundits in Seoul speculate that Ri probably lost a power game with Choe Ryong-hae, a civilian who was appointed in April as the director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, a powerful department responsible for establishing the party’s control of the military.

Choe probably had the backing of Jang Song-thaek, the young leader’s uncle, who is believed to be the real power behind the throne. Jang and Choe are known to be reform-minded, while Ri, a career military officer, is a staunch advocate of the military-first policy.

Yet it remains to be seen whether Ri’s downfall could pave the way for the isolated regime to open up to the outside world.

One may think that the North’s new leader has demonstrated his firm grip on the military by ousting its most powerful man with a single stroke. Yet his control of the military may not be as solid as it looks. It is worth remembering that securing full control of the military was an elusive goal even for his father. This implies the young leader could face a backlash from the military.

In any case, Seoul needs to closely monitor what is happening in Pyongyang and be prepared for any eventuality.


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