It appears Kim Jong-un's consolidation of power this week was far more turbulent than outsiders were led to believe. How much more turbulent remains subject to dispute.
On Friday unconfirmed reports emerged from South Korea of a gun battle between North Korean soldiers over the ouster of army chief Ri Yong-ho. According to the South Korean daily The Chosun Ilbo, soldiers led by Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae attempted to detain Ri after he was dismissed from his position on Monday. According to South Korean government officials, that's when guards protecting Ri opened fire on the soldiers in a gun battle that left 20 to 30 North Korean soldiers dead. The source also said "We cannot rule out the possibility that Ri was injured or even killed in the firefight." Backing up that story, an official at South Korea's Ministry of National Defense told The Korea Times that the order may have been an attempt to suppress a military coup. “It is highly likely that Ri’s security squad engaged in a firefight with troops deployed to execute the leadership’s instruction to unseat him and prevent a possible coup against the top military official,” the official said. Western news agencies have been unable to confirm any details of the supposed gun battle, but one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Ri's departure was not due to an "illness."
That point was cemented today in a blockbuster report by Reuters Benjamin Kang Lim, who cited a source "with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing" saying that Ri was purged after he opposed Kim's attempt to takeover the North Korean economy, which has historically been under the control of the military. Lim reports that Kim sought to impose a series of agricultural and economic reforms that Ri opposed:
"Ri Yong-ho was the most ardent supporter of Kim Jong-il's 'military first' policy," the source told Reuters, referring to Kim Jong-un's late father who plunged the North deeper into isolation over its nuclear ambitions, abject poverty and political repression.
The biggest problem was that [Ri] opposed the government taking over control of the economy from the military, the source said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions.
Boosting the credibility of its source, Reuters noted that he or she "has correctly predicted events in the past, including North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006 days before it was conducted, as well as the ascension of [Kim's uncle Jang Song-thaek.]" Given the draconian secrecy of North Korea's leadership, it's impossible to know if coup rumors are true. Still, if the Reuters report can be trusted it appears that Kim's "peaceful" consolidation of power was anything but.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.