With genuine news as tightly controlled as ever within North Korea, the world is left to guess at the true state of affairs in Pyongyang through a few calculated moves by the DPRK regime. First a mystery woman appeared beside Kim Jong-un on state television, and now a rare public dismissal of a high ranking DPRK military official has been announced by the KCNA. Last Monday, the official mouthpiece of the DPRK announced that Ri Yong-ho, a high-level military official, was dismissed from all his previous posts due to “illness.” The move has sparked widespread curiosity abroad as it is highly unusual for the regime to publicly announce any dismissals within the government or military. (Generally they just allow such officials to gradually fade from public sight and quietly reveal a new person who since filled the position.) What could such a bold announcement tell us about the new North Korean regime?
Some experts have suggested that the dismissal signals a shift in power from the “songun” (or military first) policies of Kim’s late father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il. According to a New York Times article published earlier this week, the move may show how the new leader is heading toward “a bold readjustment [or weakening] of the military’s role.” Under Kim Jong-il, the military enjoyed a wide role in economic affairs as well as unprecedented power and privileges, including the right to profit from particular exports (a rarity in a country where any individual business transactions are strictly forbidden). Analysts note that Ri’s dismissal, coupled with Wednesday’s public announcement of Kim Jong-un’s appointment as marshal (the highest military rank in North Korea), point to the regime’s efforts to quell an internal power struggle between the Workers’ Party and the People’s Army.
Just how serious the power struggle is (and will be) in the current regime is anyone’s guess. According to an article published this weekend in The Atlantic, there were unconfirmed reports of a shootout between Ri’s followers and other North Korean soldiers in a possible military coup:
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.
The article goes on to note a Reuters report that quoted an anonymous source as saying that Ri “opposed the government taking over control of the economy from the military” and was purged as a result. If these reports are accurate, the violent coup and disagreements would certainly signal a Kim regime struggling for stability — a far cry from the official “reports” of the KCNA.
However, it would be wise to take all these media speculations from South Korea with a grain of salt. Time and time again we are shown just how little we know about events in the North. And, as an NPR article reminds us, many reports from experts in the ROK turn out to be wrong. This is what happens when “insatiably curious journalists in Seoul are starved for information about their tight-lipped, isolated rival to the north.” (Although, to go even further than NPR, curious analysts worldwide are often too eager to identify any small event as a harbinger of change in North Korea.)
While the DPRK power struggle may be less violent than media reports would have you believe, Ri’s public dismissal certainly signals more of a significant policy change than other previously reported recent events (like the mystery woman or Kim’s recent choice of musical entertainment). With that said, exactly what this move tells us remains far from clear.