A gunbattle broke out when the North Korean regime removed army chief Ri Yong-ho from office, leaving 20 to 30 soldiers dead, according to unconfirmed intelligence reports. Some intelligence analysts believe Ri, who has not been seen since his abrupt sacking earlier this week, was injured or killed in the confrontation.
According to government officials here, the gunbattle erupted when Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the People's Army General Political Bureau, tried to detain Ri in the process of carrying out leader Kim Jong-un's order to sack him. Guards protecting Ri, who is a vice marshal, apparently opened fire. "We cannot rule out the possibility that Ri was injured or even killed in the firefight," said one source.
Choe is believed to be the right-hand man of Jang Song-taek, the uncle and patron of the young North Korean leader. He made his career in the Workers Party rather than the army. After being appointed director of the bureau, Choe repeatedly clashed with Ri, who came up as a field commander, prompting Choe to keep Ri under close watch and apparently triggering an internal probe targeting the army chief.
The military had grown tremendously in power under former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's "songun" or military-first doctrine, and military heavyweights like Ri who grew in stature during this period were considered threats to the young North Korean leader.
"The firefight has still not been 100 percent confirmed," said a government official here. "It may take some time for us to gain a clearer picture of what happened."