By Jamie Crawford
North Korea's sudden dismissal of Ri Yong Ho from his post as army chief and from all his government posts caught many watchers of the secretive regime of Kim Jong Un by surprise and wondering what was going on.
"To me, it's just another sign of how this transition is quite unstable, and we think it's six months since Kim Jong Il died, and we think everything is normal in North Korea - clearly it's not normal," said Victor Cha, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of a new book on the Kim regime.
For Cha, who traveled to Pyongyang in 2006 as a member of the National Security Council, the announcement signals a transition still in flux. "It's a relative term when you say 'normal' in North Korea, but this is not business as usual, very clearly."
Trying to divine what exactly is behind the decisions of North Korean elites is usually at best a guessing game of sorts, with the opacity of the regime seemingly impenetrable to rigorous analysis by Western governments and intelligence agencies.
"We are aware of developments concerning changes in the DPRK military leadership," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Monday. "We're not in a position to comment on the accuracy of these news reports, but changes in personnel, absent a fundamental change in direction, mean little."
North Korea said Wednesday that it had given the title of marshal of the army to its young leader, Kim Jong Un, the latest in a string of recent moves to reconfigure the top ranks of the military. Kim's new title is probably partially related to the recent military reshuffle and appears intended "to emphasize he's in a position of power," said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in South Korea.
North Korea's top two military commissions gave the title of vice marshal to a little known general named Hyon Yong Choi, according to the state-run news agency. It was not known if he was the designated successor to Ri. Ri held the title of vice marshal along with other military and party posts before his removal.
While the regime maintains Ri was relieved of his positions because of a medical condition, analysts who follow the situation closely say this specific personnel change is significant.
"The reason it's a big deal is because Gen. Ri was clearly designated to be one of Kim Jong Un's guardians during the period of succession and transition," according to Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution. "And so this reflects the wishes of the father and for the son to go against these ostensible wishes reflects that something really serious is going on."
The key military figure visibly near Kim Jong Un since the death of his father in December, Ri was seen by many to have been one of the generals Kim Jong Il designated to guide his son through the leadership transition.
News of the purge has led many analysts to a view that Ri's ouster may be the result of a power struggle among people surrounding the new leader who are fighting for power and influence over another faction.
Ri's departure "looks a lot like the outcome of decision making and the jockeying within this new leadership structure," said John Park, a Research Fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University. "This isn't Kim Jong Il ruling from the grave anymore, but the early signs of this new regime structure making some early movements."
One theory gaining currency among analysts is that Jang Song Taek, and his wife, Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of Kim Jong Il, may have worked on behalf of Kim Jong Un or at his direction to create factions in the military and the military pushed back.
"When you look at these kinds of power struggles," Park said, "you have to think when a senior official is purged, that individual is most likely to have sat upon a very lucrative patronage system."
One of the hallmarks of the regime of Kim Jong Il was the "military first" policy where Kim steered a disproportionate share of state resources to the military at the expense of the Workers Party and the political elites who headed it.
Jang and his wife are thought to favor reforming the North Korean economy somewhat away from the heavy mining and extracting industries that senior generals dominate, to a manufacturing based economy with goods produced for consumption and export.
"It would not be surprising to have the party primed to recoup some of the control and influence that it lost within the army," Bush with Brookings said. "This set of personnel changes may be part of that struggle."
To be sure, it is still unclear whether Ri, who is in his 60s, is in poor health. Han Park, a professor of international relations at the University of Georgia, said this week that he saw Ri at a banquet in North Korea earlier this year and he did not look well.
"He didn't appear to be a very healthy person," Park said. "His kind of color is a little dark, and it didn't appear to be a very healthy person."
Still, whatever the explanation for Ri's departure, Victor Cha said this latest move shows how unsettled things still are in the North Korean leadership after the death of Kim Jong Il and the elaborate transition plan he engineered.
"This is a fragile transition process that they have been trying to carry out since the sudden death of the father," Cha said, "and for a piece of it to be pulled out like this just shows you how fragile the whole thing is."