North Korea's official announcement that the chief of the Army's General Staff, Ri Yong-ho, has been relieved of all his posts was "unusual," an official in South Korea's Unification Ministry said. Politburo meetings like the one on Sunday that decided to sack Ri were almost unheard of under late leader Kim Jong-il, let alone publicized, even though it nominally remained the communist country's top decision-making body.
Once the one-man dictatorship was established firmly under nation founder Kim Il-sung, the Politburo degenerated into a rubber-stamp body, and Kim Jong-il rarely summoned it, according to a high-ranking North Korean defector. There have been sporadic North Korean reports that the Politburo met since Kim Jong-un came to power, but this is the first time it was used as a means to sack a heavyweight figure. Usually a Politburo makes decisions on policies or organization, but rarely on personnel matters.
Prof. Lee Jo-won at Chungang University said, "There must be a good reason for announcing the sacking so hastily and legitimizing it this way."
The regime has traditionally been extremely secretive about personnel replacements, especially when they happened during a power struggle. Purges were either kept secret or masked as traffic accidents.
Ri Je-gang, the first deputy director of the Workers Party's Organization and Guidance Department, who was a rival of Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-taek, reportedly died in a car accident in June 2010. Pak Nam-gi, the head of the party's Planning and Finance Department who was apparently executed over a botched currency reform in late 2010, simply disappeared from view.
The official KCNA news agency on Monday said that Ri was relieved of all the posts in the Politburo and as vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission "because of illness." It did not specifically mention the position of chief of the Army's General Staff. The Unification Ministry official said, "The phrase 'all positions' must include chief of the General Staff."
There is speculation that Ri took the fall for a breakdown in border security because the state media at the same time announced the arrest of "a terrorist who infiltrated North Korea with orders from South Korea and the U.S."
KCNA also mentioned that "organizational matters" were discussed in the Politburo meeting. The South Korean ministry official said, "Ri's sacking cannot be regarded as a matter of the organization, so there could be some other important changes to the party or military."
This could entail a major reshuffle at the top of the military and the party, with Ri's ouster only the beginning of a purge to consolidate Kim Jong-un's rule.