Perhaps only in North Korea would the first question about the abrupt departure of a nation’s senior-most military commander be: Who fired him?
But analysts say the only thing sure about the sudden departure of five-star Gen. Ri Yung Ho is that the official reason given for it, ill-health, looks like a transparent lie.
"We just don't know why this happened," said Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corp., a think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military.
The uncertainty underlines how poorly outsiders understand the secretive nuclear-armed state, ruled for more than half a century by three generations of the same family through the Leninist machinery of the Korean Workers’ Party and the country’s million-strong military.
Kim Jong Un succeeded his father this year, but it was Gen. Ri who orchestrated the transition.
Just months after walking alongside Mr. Kim at his father’s funeral — and despite being next to him at about half of Mr. Kim’s public appearances since — Gen. Ri was relieved of all his military and civilian posts at a meeting of the Communist Party leadership over the weekend, state media said in a brief release Monday.
In another brief statement Tuesday, the official Korean Central News Agency named Gen. Ri’s successor as Gen. Hyon Yong Chol.
"This shows the transition is not settled yet," said Victor Cha, a former White House National Security Council official and now a Korea scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"This isn’t over by a long way," added Mr. Cha, noting that the announcement said nothing about a replacement for the general in any of his jobs.
Mr. Bennett pointed out that Gen. Ri was actually the third member of the leadership to have been removed since Mr. Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, in January. The departures of the minister of state security, Gen. U Tong Chuk, and the minister of the People’s Armed Forces, Gen. Kim Yong Chun, had never been announced, he said.
"The papers just started referring to somebody else as the [new] minister," he said, referring to both ministries.
The highly public nature of Gen. Ri’s departure suggested "a far stronger signal," Mr. Bennett added.
"They wanted people to know that Ri was gone," he said.
The firing means "either Kim Jong Un has kicked off the training wheels by ditching his mentor or marks the consolidation of some other power behind the throne,” said Scott Synder of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Neither possibility will be immediately reassuring to external observers."
As well as being head of the million-strong North Korean armed forces, Gen. Ri was vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.
It was Mr. Kim’s appointment as chairman of the commission that finalized his accession to all the posts and powers held by his father.
Gen. Ri also held top political posts, including being deputy chairman to Mr. Kim of the Communist Party.
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