But North Korea watchers in Seoul, Washington and Beijing quickly cast doubt on the state’s story, noting that Ri, 69, had made several high-profile public appearances earlier this month and looked healthy. Typically, experts say, the North allows its senior officials to hold their jobs even when they have terminal illnesses. Ri was dismissed following a rare Sunday meeting that brought together a handful of the country’s top decision-makers, the North said.
“My initial reaction is, this is a political move,” said Kenneth Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA Strategic Studies, an Alexandria-based research center.
Ri’s potential purge marks the highest-profile leadership change under Kim, who rose to power last December after the death of Kim Jong Il, eventually inheriting the same supreme positions once used by his father and grandfather atop their police state.
Viewed from the outside, Kim’s ascension has triggered no clear signs of dissent. Analysts note that Kim, thought to be in his late 20s, has quietly built up his own support network, naming a new generation of officials to head the various military and state security groups that run surveillance throughout the country — and that would crush any opposition.
Since 2010 — the year Kim was anointed as leader-in-waiting — the North has named new top officials at the Ministry of People’s Security, the Ministry of State Security, the Military Security Command and the General Political Bureau, said Gause, an expert on North Korea’s leadership.
Those groups have the ability to “monitor disturbances inside the regime,” Gause said. “If you’re starting to put the pieces together, it would suggest the beginnings of a purge within the high command — a signal that the Kim family is trying to get a firm grip on the agencies within the government that can use violence” to snuff out dissent.
Ri’s fall was particularly sudden. He commanded an army to which the North funnels one-quarter of its gross domestic product, intelligence experts say. He also was one of five standing members of the Politburo and one of two vice chairmen (directly under Kim) on the Central Military Commission.
When Kim was first introduced in September 2010 to the North Korean public, Ri sat between the young Kim and his father for a group photo. A year later, during Kim Jong Il’s funeral, Ri stood alongside the hearse. This year, Ri joined Kim on trips to theater performances, military outposts and national monuments — including a July 8 visit to the mausoleum where Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, lies in state.
The Kim family has long used purges to maintain power and weed out potential rivals, but the methods are typically less public: a banishment to a labor camp or a mysterious car accident. In this case, North Korea mentioned Ri’s removal and waited another 24 hours to announce his replacement, Hyon Yong Chol.
“I think it’s very, very unlikely that he was involved in some kind of coup plot,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group. “If that was the case, he’d just disappear — he’d be dead.”
Rather, Pinkston said, Ri was perhaps booted over a smaller disagreement that led to a loss of trust. The North’s army is involved in everything from mining to real estate to arms sales, an open invitation for senior leaders to skim money on deals.
“I could imagine a situation where he was maybe too greedy,” Pinkston said. “He’s been described as an ambitious person.”
Shortly after the announcement of Ri’s dismissal, the North’s state media published a message of thanks to the military from Kim for “tremendous feats in major construction projects.” Some analysts speculated that Ri, a noted hard-liner who spoke frequently about the country’s military-first policy, would be opposed to any economic reforms.
Experts caution that Kim has shown no clear preference for reform and would face significant obstacles if he wanted to create major social change. Many of the North’s 24 million people are impoverished and food-deprived, but Kim is surrounded by a group of elderly elites who benefit from the system and receive the vast proportion of the country’s scant resources.
“I don’t think Ri was purged because he has a different opinion from Kim Jong Eun on the route North Korea should take,” said Li Yongchun, a Korea researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. “Besides Ri, there are a bunch of hard-liners in the party. It is true that Ri is one important hard-nosed figure in the party, but it’s impossible for Kim Jong Eun to have any reform just by beating Ri Yong Ho.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.