The North Korean announcement of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho’s July 15 removal from all posts due to “illness” at a meeting of the General Political Bureau of the Central Committee “deal with the organizational issue” is the first purge of a senior figure in North Korea since Kim Jong-un assumed his father’s posts last April. It is all the more striking because Ri Yong-ho’s ascension to the top rung of power at North Korea’s September 2010 party conference placed him as the apparent guardian of the plan to implement a transition to a third generation of Kim family leadership.
The New York Times described Ri as Kim Jong-un’s “mentor,” but I thought of him primarily as the executor of Kim Jong Il’s last will and testament regarding leadership succession. Ri’s central placement between Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un in the photo from the September 2010 party conference suggested that he was the glue that would hold it all together.
With Ri’s removal, either Kim Jong-un has kicked off the training wheels by ditching his mentor or his departure marks the consolidation of some other power behind the throne. Neither possibility will be immediately reassuring to external observers. More significantly, however, it is not at all clear that this is what Kim Jong-il had in mind when he set the party leadership hierarchy prior to his death. If the removal of Ri Yong-ho is indeed a deviation from Kim Jong-il’s plans for succession, then the leadership is now in uncharted waters.
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. 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? Is the purge of Ri Yong-ho the beginning of the end of stability in North Korea or is it the end of the beginning (i.e., a sign that power has been consolidated, at least for the time being)?
The fact that this purge was announced as a result of a party political bureau meeting, and not as a result of a violent coup attempt or other mischief, suggests that this is a power play and not (yet) a sign of disintegration or loss of political control. Speculation will run primarily to Jang Song-taek as the author of such a consolidation of power, especially following the appointment of Jang’s long-time confidant Choe Ryong-hae as a Vice Marshal last April in a move that may have sparked direct conflict with Ri. With Choe atop the military and Ri Yong-ho gone, has Jang asserted his control behind the throne?
If Jang has eliminated Ri Yong-ho from power, whether or not this development is good for Kim Jong-un is ultimately a family matter among uncle Jang, aunt Kim Gyong-hui, and nephew Kim Jong-un. If Jang replaces Ri in the role of caretaker and power broker for Kim Jong-un and if he and his ally Choe Ryong-hae can tame the military, Kim Jong-un may be strengthened by these developments. But 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.