Seoul: He was the guardian figure always at the side of North Korea's young new leader. As the top army official, his experience and position lent Kim Jong Un credibility with the troops.
Now, Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho is out, dismissed from several powerful posts because of "illness," state media said today in a brief surprise announcement just days after he last appeared in public.
Ri did not appear ill in recent appearances, feeding speculation abroad that Kim purged him in an effort to put his own mark on the nation he inherited when father Kim Jong Il died in December. At the same time, there was no sign of discord at Ri's last public appearance at a high-level event, barely a week ago.
Still, Ri's removal, whether for health reasons or political missteps, shakes the core of the authoritarian regime's power structure and may be a sign that Kim is tensing his grip on power, just as his father and grandfather, founding leader Kim Il Sung, did in their eras.
The decision to dismiss the 69-year-old from top military and political posts was made at a Workers' Party meeting, convened uncharacteristically Sunday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. It was not immediately clear who would take Ri's place, and the dispatch did not elaborate on his condition or future.
"Whether because of a physical malady or political sin, Ri Yong Ho is out, and Pyongyang is letting the world know to not expect to hear about him anymore," said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.
It's too early to determine "whether Ri's stepping down is a manifestation of civil-military tensions, or Kim Jong Un's attempt to consolidate control" over the army, he said.
North Korea's political and military reshuffles are mysterious, with officials sometimes dropping out of sight without explanation. Many top North Korean officials -- such as Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, who died of heart disease in 2010 at age 82 --stay in their posts until they die.
Perhaps, because Ri arrived on the national scene during Kim Jong Il's final years, "he was always meant to be a transitional regent figure, and his function is played," Delury said.
First Published: Monday, July 16, 2012, 09:05