Purge of North Korean general still a mystery
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to soldiers of the Korean People Internal Security Forces in the capital Pyongyang
July 19th, 2012
01:00 AM ET

Purge of North Korean general still a mystery

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.

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"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."

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Filed under: Kim Jong Il • Kim Jong-un • North Korea
soundoff (85 Responses)
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    September 10, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  2. JM

    Fourth paragraph down, first sentence: "Trying to divine what exactly is behind the decisions..." Divine? DIVINE? You mean "define?" Come on, CNN...

    July 23, 2012 at 2:36 am | Reply
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  4. SkepticStill

    "purge of general still a mystery"
    so they don't know what laxative?

    July 22, 2012 at 5:08 am | Reply
  5. EvilWorm

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is really Porky Pig!

    July 21, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  6. BigR

    He wasn't too healthy, don't try to let the media make a big deal out of it. Probably the most likely reason Cancer.

    July 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  7. TheGreenMan

    Field Marshall of the world's largest Open Prison, dog curry Noodle Shop and Stalinist dictatorship. Clearly Kim has come a short way in a long time

    July 21, 2012 at 8:26 am | Reply
    • William Hung

      That former general gonna get pineapples up the butt till he dies. That's how they do retirement there, no one leaves the party alive.

      July 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  8. F. Daniel Gray

    Segueing from Porcelain Bus Driver, I recall the photo from the Vietnam war of an American pilot from a downed aircraft, being marched along by a "smaller" female. It seemed that her comrades felt she was fully capable of controlling the situation. looking at the soldiers of the DPRK, I am reminded of the young people I encountered in juvenile hall in LA, CA. I suspect that there is not as much variety in sizes as one would see in an American store. After all, they are a poor country. However, it would be foolish to doubt or belittle their ability to defend their country..

    July 20, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Reply
  9. Fr33th1nk3r

    Wow. The resemblence is astounding.....he is some 30 years Kim Jong-Il's junior, but already has the telltale jowls and pudgy appearance of his father. Apparently, he has the same flair for over-dramatics and overstating their position too.

    His head looks like a Christmas ham. With all the starving people in NK, they ought to cook up that noggin and serve it– will feed lots of people.

    July 20, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  10. When

    When did the "Street Sweeper's Convention" come to NK?

    July 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  11. Mike D

    They are so malnourished, probably didn't get the right nutrients growing up.

    Their clothes don't even fit properly.

    July 20, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
  12. Mike D

    Look at how skinny and small all those poor malnourished soldiers are.

    How can this country be considered war ready? Those poor guys would get torn apart :(

    July 20, 2012 at 10:41 am | Reply
  13. Grand Royale

    This picture of a NK army battalion seems intimidating, until you realize that every single person in this picture is 4'6"

    July 20, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply
    • Porcelain Bus Driver

      The Vietnamese aren't exactly a race of six-footers, yet they managed to off 50,000 of us.

      July 20, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • William Hung

      The Vietnamese managed to off 60,000 Chinese in about 2 months. What's your point?

      July 21, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
    • William Hung

      These guys are not only short they are skeletons. I bet they can't last a few days without supplies.

      July 21, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  14. Mi Cuum Lots

    haha, "young ho".

    July 20, 2012 at 9:24 am | Reply
  15. desert voice (troubledgoodangel or Nathanael or Bohdan or Voiceinthedesert)

    There is no problem, I think. Life is fragile and so is human health. People, when old, get sick sometimes. It's not a rocket science, but the reality of being human. The replacement, hopefully, is agreeable to Kim Jong UN. I like the guy for his relative "humaneness", printed in his young face! And I want him to succeed in doing what is good for both Koreas!

    July 20, 2012 at 5:56 am | Reply
  16. Tony

    They all look like little Gollums from lord of the rings.

    July 20, 2012 at 5:39 am | Reply
    • William Hung

      LOL!

      July 21, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  17. ScottCA

    They all look so short in that photo.
    Its like a scene from the wizard of oz.

    July 20, 2012 at 2:01 am | Reply
  18. Hotaru

    The general ate too much food, Kim started to worry.

    July 20, 2012 at 12:19 am | Reply
    • William Hung

      Un and Hu ran a train on the general.

      July 20, 2012 at 1:10 am | Reply
  19. matt in nw

    Looks to me to be not just the civilian population missing meals...most of their army looks like they could use a good meal or two:(

    July 20, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
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      September 10, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
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  21. Hahahahahahaahaha

    Look at the guy following Lil Donged One. He's looking over the crowed and telling them "to clap like this...or else!" Hahahahahaahahahahaha

    July 19, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Reply
    • hbujo

      There is no valid qualification in a Korean

      July 19, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  22. Thomas Klimchuk

    Rember when your the boss you dont want anybody who is smarter then you are It doesnt look good in front of the other employees

    July 19, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • Owl96

      If Kim Jong Un got rid of everyone smarter than him, he would be the only one left in the country.

      July 20, 2012 at 8:23 am | Reply
  23. DC Observer

    The General likely got caught stealing the donuts of Kim Jong Un

    July 19, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
    • William Hung

      I think they banged the general with an inverted pineapple.

      July 19, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Reply
  24. Mike White

    He was old and eyewitnesses said he looked in poor health last year.
    Isn't is possible he really is just sick?

    July 19, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  25. Piranha

    This general got the ax probably because he did not clap his hands loud enough, or did not say hhhhhhaaarrrruuumph 3 times, this is a boring article, boring story, boring people, boring country, just bohhhhhhhhhhhhrrring.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • Smegma

      And yet you still cared enough to read the article and comment.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  26. rex edie

    i like the name ..".Kim Jong Un".... hopefully the "Un" means he is not like his father... or " Kim Jong Un is just like his father"...
    N O T !!!!!!

    July 19, 2012 at 11:34 am | Reply
    • circustrainer

      maybe it means that he is Pro United Nations

      July 19, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
    • Genius Cucallatus

      Never trust a chinaman. we dont even trust each other.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • It means

      "Little Donged One"

      July 20, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  27. Jeff

    Who cares. Maybe the guy is sick, why do all of the paranoid people start spectulating and guessing that there is alterior motive. It's none of your business.......!!!

    July 19, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • madmax949

      They properly think we tried to poison him and take out another key figure :) But your right, who cares!!

      July 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • lala

      so you are the one who decides what we can and can not be concerned about. well, wow, finally get to meet you your royal self-righteous highness.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        It's none of your buisness what goes on in North Korea...

        July 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
      • William Hung

        The general got butt fugged to death with a pineapple.

        July 19, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  28. DC Observer

    Just returned from North Korea - those guys in fron are actually wearing janatorial uniforms..... this is not the Army; this is the Sanitation Department - the most highly revered group in North Korea

    July 19, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply
    • USCommentator

      Are you one of them?

      July 19, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
      • Jeff

        Yes, my real name is Ho Chi Min Trail...

        July 19, 2012 at 11:28 am |
      • Jeff

        No wait, it's One Long Dong...

        July 19, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Smegma

      Typical Amerikan hubris.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  29. DC Observer

    Kim Jong Un needs to meet Jenny Craig very soon ....

    July 19, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
    • USCommentator

      You spent your time with Jenny Craig? You know there is a new medicine coming out soon. You should try.

      July 19, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • rex edie

      i like your take on the uniforms.... quite possible... (too bad people dont have much of a sense of humor anymore) as for your other comment... maybe jenny will offer him a strict diet of "Kim Chee" only... cut back on the rice....and leave some for the peasants...

      July 19, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  30. Happy Crowd

    Moments before this photo Kim informed the crowd that they shall have double portion of rat soup today, crowd cheers as Ki walks along waving you're to kind think nothing of it – photo snapped.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:20 am | Reply
  31. is that mexico

    From the side view and height those NK's look much like Mexicans. The evil plan is becoming apparent someone call Michelle Bachman and tell her that North Korea is infiltrating the US by pretending to be Mexicans who easily slip across the border into US and once they receive orders from Kim they will stop all crop picking, hotel room cleaning, maid and nanny service, lawn mowing, flagmen flagging, short order cooking ad other important jobs bring the United States to a halt and Kim will walk right in and become our dear leader using a combination communist and sharia law hybrid model.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:09 am | Reply
    • hela po

      and then you will need to get out of your couch and go to work 8 hours at minimun wages 7 days a week so you can continue gettin fat and stupid in front of your tv watching trash, Ho wait you are already mentaly chalenged just keep eating your sloppy joe...

      July 19, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  32. larry5

    Great looking uniforms in the picture. How many different belt buckles do you see?

    July 19, 2012 at 7:53 am | Reply
    • is that mexico

      Three I see three different belt buckles and I found Waldo at top left seven to the right three down and one over.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:12 am | Reply
      • hela po

        Dont worry about the belt buckles you wont need them just keep eaqting your sloppy joe boy

        July 19, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • Dough Boy

      I see three as well and is that Poppin Fresh aka Pillsbury waving to the clapping crowd

      July 19, 2012 at 8:16 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Look at the different shades between the uniforms.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:40 am | Reply
    • basketcase

      The uniforms are somewhat pathetic, but it's really irrelevant. I doubt the number of belt buckles used on dress uniforms and military effectiveness are at all correlated.

      July 19, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  33. WILL

    You people are not reading. if he retired why would they Kim Jung Un to his Job. its a consolidation of power. Duh
    Get rid of people who threaten you and name yourself to their job so you hold more power. In this Case the North Korean Army

    July 19, 2012 at 7:51 am | Reply
  34. Tutuvabene

    Interesting that Un is the only one with any meat on his bones. The rest look like starved scarecrows.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:50 am | Reply
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      he works out at Ballys – malaka

      July 19, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
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  35. ScottCA

    It all comes down to economics. They just simply couldn't afford to feed that many generals anymore.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:23 am | Reply
  36. Ding Dong Dill

    I'm beginning to realise that US propaganda is just as bad as Korean propaganda.

    The guy clearly retired (or was forced to retire) because he was sick, and everyone is trying to make a huge story out of it. I bet they tell their people over there that the US "purges" retired generals and military officials as well.

    July 19, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply
    • State the obvious

      I was thinking the same thing. Maybe the guy is really sick and they're just laughing at everyone making this into something that it's not.

      July 19, 2012 at 8:02 am | Reply
    • rex edie

      don't you mean ..... "binge and purge" ..the generals... ??

      July 19, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
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  37. Justthefactsmaam

    I see that, finally, an article about this actually mentions near its end that, yeah, maybe the guy really is sick and all these articles about a North Korean Purge are made out of whole cloth.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:55 am | Reply
  38. Sunny K

    I do not what to make of this,but it seems the usually circulated fact might just be free.Kim Jong Un seems to be the only fat one.

    July 19, 2012 at 5:50 am | Reply
  39. remford

    Oh, sure. As if any OTHER DPRK decision had been known for being particularly rational.

    July 19, 2012 at 5:40 am | Reply
  40. azezel

    I suppose they say the same thing when one of ours retires. .

    July 19, 2012 at 5:12 am | Reply
  41. Michael Traynor

    Those North Korean soldiers sure look like "wee" fellas.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:47 am | Reply
    • remford

      Yes. But "wee" fellas who can split atoms.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:41 am | Reply
  42. TheGreenMan

    He was 69 years old for Chris'sake. Could old age have got nothing to do with it ?

    July 19, 2012 at 4:37 am | Reply
  43. James

    I will say one thing, they got that "hand clapping" down to an art!!

    July 19, 2012 at 3:54 am | Reply

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