Is the ouster of North Korea's military leader a sign of more purges to come? Last night, Kim Jong-un triggered a flurry of speculation as he cemented control over his country by awarding himself the title of marshal, the formal designation of the country's top military leader. ''A decision was made to award the title of Marshal of the DPRK to Kim Jong-un, supreme commander of the Korean People's Army,'' reads the vague statement by the Korean Central News Agency. The young leader's entrenchment of power comes days after North Korea's army chief Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho was removed "due to illness" and replaced by a relatively unknown general. Here's what's buzzing about the shakeup:
The "illness" excuse is bogus It's impossible to confirm the health of of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho but there are many reasons to be skeptical about the terms of his resignation followed by Kim's ascension. As the AP's Hyung-Jin Kim reports, the announcement of his illness came just days after he appeared in public. "Ri did not appear ill in recent appearances, feeding speculation abroad that Kim purged him in an effort to put his own mark on the nation he inherited when father Kim Jong Il died in December. At the same time, there was no sign of discord at Ri's last public appearance at a high-level event, barely a week ago." Nobody knows for sure whether Ri's departure was acrimonious but the health excuse is certainly flimsy.
Kim took over after heated dispute An interesting rumor surfaced by South Korea's largest news agency, Yonhap, this morning posits that Kim took over after Ri deceived him about the status of Korean troops.
"A rumor is circulating among North Korean soldiers that Ri Yong-ho stepped down on account of trying to fool Kim Jong-un," a North Korean defector said. "When Kim visited Tank Division 105 on the first day of the new year, the division had a group of malnourished soldiers segregated out of sight."
After an unscheduled encounter with the malnourished soldiers, Kim rebuked Ri for attempting to cover up the realities of the military, the defector said, quoting his son who now serves in the North Korean army.
After the New Year's Day incident, speculations circulated that Ri might be replaced, the defector said. Kim later instructed officials to feed soldiers well, he said.
It's a rumor that almost sounds too flattering to believe—Kim's generous concern for the welfare of troops created a friction between him and Ri?—but given its sourcing to defectors and South Korean media, it shouldn't immediately be dismissed.
Upheaval could be a sign of more purges to come In an interesting blog post by Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations, the senior fellow for Korea Studies says the shift should raise concerns about an impending power struggle. "Ri’s removal will invite new scrutiny of North Korean leadership stability and cohesiveness, and once again raises uncertainty regarding the future of the regime," he writes. "If the guardian of the succession and one of Kim Jong-il’s eight pallbearers can be removed exactly one week after having joined top luminaries in a ceremony on the anniversary of Kim-il Sung’s death and after having accompanied Kim Jong-un on at least half of his public appearances since his father’s death almost seven months ago, who else among Ri’s support network might be at risk?" Snyder says the smart money defines this as a power play that could lead to any number of unpredictable outcomes. "If Ri Yong-ho’s removal sparks new challenges or incites rivalries at the top of the North Korean leadership, North Korea may become a truly volatile and unpredictable source of instability at a time when election-focused South Korea and the United States can least afford a North Korean crisis."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.