It has been a busy seven-plus months for North Korea watchers – between Kim Jong Il’s death and funeral, the April Party Conference and SPA meeting, as well as nuclear negotiations and the failed rocket launch, there’s been plenty to speculate about. Now comes news that Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, Chief of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff, a member of the Presidium of the Politburo, as well as a Vice Chairman in the Central Military Commission (CMC), has been removed from all posts due to “illness.” What do we know about Ri and what does his dismissal tell us?
Beginning in September 2003 we know that ri Yong Ho was the Pyongyang Defense Corps. Commander which, according to Ken Gause’s book North Korea Under Kim Jong-il, “is the corps-level unit responsible for the protection of Pyongyang and the surrounding areas. It takes its tasking from the General Staff, but has close ties to Kim Jong-il.” His performance at this level was good enough for a promotion to Chief of the KPA General Staff in February 2009, replacing Kim Kyok Sik. He was made one of five members of the Politburo Standing Committee (also known as the Presidium of the Politburo) at the September 2010 Worker’s Party Conference, which was the first major party meeting in 30 years. Gause states that at this point, “he was believed by many Pyongyang watchers to be serving as a military escort for the heir apparent, much as O Chin-u had done for Kim Chong-il.” Along with Kim Jong Un, he was made a Vice Chairman of the CMC, and was the fifth ranked elite in the country. Later on he was one of the “Gang of Eight” that accompanied Kim Jong Il’s funeral casket. However, after that point it seems Ri’s star faded – he was passed over for a spot on the National Defense Commission at the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) meeting in April of this year, and was leapfrogged in the rankings by Choe Ryong Hae following the Worker’s Party Conference in April (more on Choe later). However, there was still very little indication that he had fallen out of favor.
The stated reason for his removal, illness, immediately raised suspicion among North Korea watchers. As numerous others, such as NK Leadership Watch and Aidan Foster-Carter, have pointed out, illness and car accidents are often euphemisms for an elite being purged. Ri was 69 – not young by any stretch of the imagination, but still three years younger than the average Politburo member. Not only that but we have seen members of the elite hold on, and actually receive new positions, even as they were reportedly in terrible shape. For example, Marshal Jo Myong Rok, the former Director of the KPA General Political Bureau, was in declining health for years prior to being made a member of the Presidium of the Politburo in September 2010. He held on to all of his positions until his death in November 2010. While Ri’s public appearances with Kim Jong Un were down over the past three months (see figure below) he did not look to be in particularly bad shape at any point (though, in fairness, KCNA photos are often doctored, so there could have been unseen issues). Regardless, given the fact that Ri had appeared quite recently in public, I think it is safe to say that this removal was much more likely a purge than any sort of sudden illness.
Since most North Korea watchers have dismissed illness, numerous other theories have arisen. These mostly fall under the following three categories but are not mutually exclusive.
1) Institutional Rivalry: As Foster-Carter puts it, “the likeliest reason [for Ri’s removal] is a fallout with another rising star, Choe Ryong Hae.” But this isn’t just about two elites duking it out – rather, “there are institutional rivalries, especially between the party and army.” As Stephan Haggard and I pointed out in this article, military membership in key institutions has been on the rise, especially since the succession began in earnest in 2009. However, these aren’t simply “military” men as we would think of them elsewhere; instead, they are civilians dressed up in military uniforms. Choe Ryong Hae, who like Ri is the son of a former guerrilla fighter, is perhaps the best example. He has risen rapidly from Chief Secretary of the North Hwanghae Provincial Committee (appointed April 2006) to Director of the KPA General Political Bureau (appointed April 2012), responsible for “political and ideological indoctrination of officers and service members of the KPA.” It is unprecedented, at least in the songun era, to have this position filled by a civilian – though Choe was promoted to Vice Marshal, he has little to no military experience on his record. If the Workers’ Party, as Foster-Carter suggests, is trying to clawback control over the military and rein in the excesses of the “military-first” policy, we can see Choe’s promotion, and Ri’s subsequent removal, as two major moves in that direction.
2) “Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkey”: Another theory is that Ri was removed in order to send a message to the other elites: no one should feel safe. As Dan Pinkston of International Crisis Group points out, “This will not only have been aimed at this individual but it will also serve as a signal to others….In these sort of dictatorships, purges are used as a policy instrument and designed to send the chilling message that the regime is willing to take action. And that is even more chilling when the person is one of the most senior members of the inner circle.” It is also possible that Ri was corrupt (or, in the North Korean context, more corrupt than permissible). Given the wide variety of industries that the KPA has its tentacles in, Chief of the General Staff is likely to be a fairly lucrative position if one wanted it to be. Ri may have overstepped his bounds, and was removed so that other elites would not follow in his footsteps.
In fact, Ri might be the second example for other elites to chew on. U Tong Chuk, previously First Vice-Director of the Ministry of State Security, alternate member of the Politburo, member of the National Defense Commission and another member who accompanied Kim Jong Il’s casket, mysteriously vanished without a trace following the April meetings of the WPK and SPA. If Kim Jong Un wanted to show that he was tough and a ruler to be feared, removing a quarter of those accompanying Kim Jong Il’s casket within the span of seven months is probably a good strategy.
3) Policy Disagreement: Finally, we are left with the possibility that Ri was perhaps too vocal about policy disagreements he may have had. Cheong Seong Chang suggests that “Ri Yong Ho was most likely fired for resisting the Workers’ Party leadership, mainly on mobilizing soldiers for economic initiatives. The party is on board with Kim Jong Un’s decision to improve the economy through flagship construction projects over bolstering military might.” This possibility makes more sense given that the article directly above the one on Ri’s removal is entitled “Kim Jong Un Highly Appreciates Patriotic Loyalty of Service Personnel” and talks at great length about a particular unit’s “tremendous feats in major construction projects.” Perhaps a signal from the top leadership that this particular topic is off-limits for discussion? (See Nicholas Hamisevicz at the KEI Blog for more on that theory)
Another, more hopeful, theory is that this is the beginning of North Korean reform that perpetually seems just around the corner. Yang Moo Jin says “The firing of Ri means the end of the country’s hawkish military-first policy putting the troops before any other policy objective, and possibly the beginning of governance more focused instead on improving the economy.” Along with signs of slightly greater cultural openness (Disney characters & High heels) the hope is that removal of a (reportedly) hard-line military figure will allow for other reforms to move forward. However, it is way too early to say what this means for reform, and certainly too early to say this is the end of the military-first policy. Ri was surely not the only hard-liner, and any reform will necessarily encroach upon the fiefdoms that various elites in the party and military have built up over the years. It is still likely to be some time before the regime feels secure enough to reform if they are so inclined.
Ultimately, the most likely explanation is some combination of theories one and two. Theory three, insofar as it regards mobilization for economic projects, also sounds plausible in conjunction with one and two. There has been a clear attempt by the Workers’ Party to reassert control over the military since the September 2010 Party Conference revived the previously moribund party institutions. The removal of Ri can be seen as another show of force that the Party, and in particular Kim Jong Un, is in control. One interesting contrast is how Kim has been presented to the North Korean public at large (warm, charismatic, caring and more modern than his father) with how the Ri removal makes him look to the elites (tough, in control and not to be messed with).