December 07, 2023

What Was Behind Ri Yong Ho’s Departure?

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.