Did North Korea Just 'Purge' Its Top Military Leader?

North Korea's highest-ranking military officer has been officially relieved from all his duties due to an unnamed illness, but many observers of the new regime doubt the official story.

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North Korea's highest-ranking military officer has been officially relieved from all his duties due to an unnamed illness, but many observers of the new regime doubt the official story. Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho appeared to be in good health when he was seen in public with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un just one week ago, but he has now been relieved of his duties as both the chief of general staff of the army and the leader of the state's political party. Illness is often used by the North Korean government to explain the departure of top officials, though little of what comes from official state news can be taken at face value.

Speculation among North Korean analysts in the United States is that Ri's departure is actually the result of a power struggle that he may have lost to Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong-un's uncle, who some say is the real influence behind the throne now. Ri was considered a close confidant of Kim Jong-il and was often seen beside him and his son at official events. He was also frequently shown to be guiding the younger Kim after his father's funeral last December. Both the AP and Reuters describe his dismissal as a "purge," possibly meant to solidify Kim Jong-un's control over the military or even to signal a new direction in North Korean politics. The North had frequently threatened violence against South Korea since Kim Jong-un took over last year, but it remains to be seen if that rhetoric will continue or start to soften.

Feel free to pair this news with the recent speculation about the unknown woman that Kim Jong-un has recently been seen in public with to try and formulate some new theory about what the heck this guy is up to. Perhaps he's slowly trying to break away from his father's way of doing things, or he's just using the same old tricks on a new group of people. Either way, he's given everyone who is watching the situtation in Pyongyang something new to think about.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.