The North Korean regime meticulously planned the ouster of Army chief Ri Yong-ho, informed sources here said Sunday.
One source said North Korean eminence grise Jang Song-taek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong-un, and Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae prepared the firing by checking ammunition supplies at military bases directly under Ri's command and stepped up surveillance of any army divisions Ri could mobilize in his defense.
South Korean intelligence apparently noticed this before Ri was fired.
As vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, Jang controls the State Security Department, police and other security branches, which gives him an advantage in monitoring potential adversaries, while the General Political Bureau headed by Choe also monitors and supervises the military.
"It appears that Jang loyalists meticulously plotted to remove Ri and other adversaries before they could consolidate their power base," a government source here said. Ri had been handpicked by former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2009 at the recommendation of O Kuk-ryol, the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, to help Kim Jong-un solidify his grip on power.
Ri's background as a field commander appears to have been his Achilles heel, since he had yet to establish a power base in Pyongyang when he was removed.
Since the beginning of this year, Jang apparently tried to pick up any mistakes made by officers loyal to Ri. One grievous offense is believed to have been the failure of the military to attack South Korean media even though the General Staff Department had issued a threat revealing the exact coordinates of their offices.
Ri may also have been blamed for the failed launch in April of what the North claimed was a space rocket. There are rumors that Jang loyalists even kept a record of conversations of members of Ri's family that were critical of the young leader or his supporters.
Experts say Ri may have also complained of some mistakes made by Jang. "Choe, who is Jang's right-hand man, started inspecting military bases in April this year, acting as if he was part of the Kim family," said one government source here. "Ri seems to have accused Choe of being presumptuous."
Chinese authorities are also worried about Ri's ouster. The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sunday quoted a Hong Kong-based human rights group as saying the Chinese military deployed four early-warning aircraft along the border to prevent North Korean troops or aircraft from attempting to escape and is monitoring the region around the clock.
This suggests that China had intelligence that Ri's removal stirred up considerable commotion, the Japanese paper said.