North Korea's politburo removed army chief Ri Yong Ho from all his posts in the most significant power shift since Kim Jong Un took control of the country after the death of his father in December.
The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea made the decision yesterday to "relieve" Ri from his posts as chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army and a Vice Chairman of the party's Central Military Commission "for his illness," the official Korean Central News Agency said today, without providing details on Ri's health or his replacement.
The downfall of Ri, the de facto second-in-command to Kim of the North's 1.2 million-strong armed forces, stoked speculation over the course of one of the world's most closed nations. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak last month urged the totalitarian state to adopt Myanmar's example of political opening.
"All high-ranking officials customarily remain in service throughout, regardless of sicknesses, and hold their posts until they die," said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "The firing of Ri means the end of the country's hawkish 'military-first' policy putting the troops before any other policy objective, and possibly the beginning of governance more focused on instead improving the economy."
South Korea's Kospi index of stocks was little changed after the news, down 0.1 percent at 1,811.09 as of 10:33 a.m. in Seoul. The MSCI Asia Pacific Index advanced 0.3 percent. The South Korean won gained 0.1 percent to 1,148.75 per dollar.
Ri, 69, is a graduate of the Kim Il Sung Military University and first rose to prominence in February 2009, when he was promoted to vice marshal of the Korean People's Army and chief of the General Staff, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry. He was promoted again a year later as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party, the highest military post that a non-member of the ruling Kim family can hold.
In December, he and leader Kim Jong Un led the funeral procession through the streets of Pyongyang after the death of Kim Jong Il. Ri led a parade on April 25 marking the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the North Korean military.