Vice Marshal Ri’s fall could herald economic reform in North Korea
Update: Media outlets across the world are reporting former North Korea Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho might have been killed in a gun battle when the regime removed him from office. The reports are based on a South Korean newspaper report citing unconfirmed intelligence reports.
The reports state 20 to 30 soldiers were killed. They also state intelligence analysts believe Ri could have been injured or killed in the confrontation. He has not been seen since losing his post.
The toppling of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho has been widely described as part of a generational purge by Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father as leader of the isolated, repressive nation known as the Hermit Kingdom.
This may prove to be the case. It certainly appears to signal a reassertion of influence by elements of the leadership with the closest ties to China, led by Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae.
In April, only three months before Ri’s fall, Choe was promoted to vice marshal status even though he had almost no military background. He also was promoted to the Workers’ Party of Korea [WPK] Presidium, to be vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and to be a member of the National Defense Commission.
The move appears consistent with signs that Kim Jong-un wants to give more attention to improving the isolated country’s basket-case economy. Kim assumed the title of marshal of the army, a title held by his late father, Kim Jong-il.
However, even if this is the case, the current ruler, who is only 28 or 29 years old [there is uncertainty whether he was born in January 1983 or January 1984], could easily swing back to more repressive or dangerous external policies.
During the past six months, Ri, 69, repeatedly appeared in public as Falstaff to Kim Jong-un’s Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV – the older, more experienced, always laughing and smiling companion of the young prince who emerged on the national scene to succeed his father.
Ri seen as potential problem
But Ri also was widely seen by analysts as a potentially dangerous, shoot-from-the-hip leader. He had been the trusted right-hand man of the previous leader, Kim Jong-il in the last decade of his life. Additionally, he was widely regarded as the key figure behind the unprovoked fierce artillery bombardment of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010.
That attack raised the danger of war with South Korea and the North -- with its nuclear weapons, its million-man Army and its almost 40,000 artillery tubes trained on South Korean capital Seoul -- to the greatest level in nearly 30 years.
On July 16, 2012, the North’s Korean Central News Agency announced that Ri had been dropped from his dominant military position, citing ill health as the reason. However, the nature of the claimed illness was never specified and Ri had appeared to that point to be in good health.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the circumstances of his removal were “very unusual.”
The toppling of Ri certainly appears to have taken him by surprise. There was no sign of discord between him and Kim Jong-un at Ri’s last public appearance at a high-level event, less than a week earlier. During the previous six months, Ri was repeatedly described in Western reports as the young Kim’s “guardian” and “mentor.”
Move could be start of military purge
North Korea scholar Leonid Petrov told The Australian newspaper in Canberra in a report published on July 17 that the fall of Ri might prove to be the beginning of a major purge of elderly leaders in the army who had run it for his father.
“What looks like a big game is now unfolding in Pyongyang and Ri Yong-ho is the first victim. After Ri Yong-ho, there might be more changes in the Korean People’s Army top brass or Korean Workers’ Party politburo ranks,” Petrov said.
Other analysts said the fall of Ri may herald the return to the inner circle of power by Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Sung-taek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.
Jang “played a considerable role during Kim Jong-il’s illness of managing the succession problem and even the North’s relations with the United States and China,” said Yang Moo-jin of Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.
Jang was a relative moderate in Kim Jong-il’s inner circle. He handled cautious efforts to gain economic cooperation and advantages for the North from South Korea and other countries. He appeared to have taken the occasion of Kim Jong-il’s death last December to promote himself to the level of four-star general.
However, Jang also appeared to have angered Kim Jong-un by pushing himself forward too soon. Although he kept his positions, he virtually disappeared from the public eye for several months while Vice Marshal Ri enjoyed the spotlight at the new young leader’s side.
It remains to be seen if Jang will re-emerge into prominence alongside Choe Ryong-hae, or whether Choe will seek to engineer his downfall.
If Choe and Jang do emerge as the new top team under Kim Jong-un, it will go against speculations the new young ruler wants a generational purge. Choe is 62 and Jang is 66.
The Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C., has published a report suggesting that Jang is close to the government of China.
“It is likely that he has his own power base within the government,” analyst Nicholas Hamisevicz wrote in a KEI report published in December 2011. “Moreover, some reports suggest the Chinese would have preferred him to succeed Kim Jong-il rather than Kim Jong-un.
“These factors, including his involvement in economic projects and directing internal security matters, leave a possibility for [Jang] Sung-taek to attempt to seize power himself.”
Ri had strong ties to late Kim Jong-il
Ri was chief of the North’s military Joint Chiefs of Staff and after Kim Jong-il’s death was publicly named as being number four on the national funeral committee list. He was one of the eight leading figures who marched beside Kim Jong-il’s coffin during his funeral procession.
Luke Herman, an analyst for the U.S.-based Petersen Institute, told The Australian that the fall of Ri may just be the latest stage of a wider purge by Kim Jong-un.
Herman said state security official U Tong-chuk also vanished from his position and was replaced.
“He hasn't been seen since April, and that’s never a good sign. So now we have one-quarter of the people who were assumed to be the heavyweights in the regime removed within six months,” he told The Australian.
Kim Jong-un making more public appearances
Kim Jong-un speaks far more in public about economic issues and the importance of raising the standard of living of ordinary people. Unlike the aloof and remote Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un likes to touch and interact with the public.
North Korea’s new ruler has even taken a definite step in the direction of the glasnost, or openness, policy of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev which ultimately led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
When an attempt to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] failed in April, the current leader even approved a public admission of the failure. This never happened when any previous major rocket test announced in advance failed to work or achieve its full goals. On every previous occasion under Kim Jong-il, the Pyongyang government falsely claimed to its own people that a satellite had been successfully launched into orbit, even though the rest of the world knew this was not the case.
Kim Jong-un took another step toward preparing the way for possible wide-ranging future economic reforms in April when he promoted a group of younger officials to key positions in the ruling WPK. In any communist society, such a generational transformation has preceded major liberalizations or thaws in economic policy. This could lead eventually to at least partial repudiation of his father’s songun, or military first policy.
Still, it has yet to be seen if the military leadership in Pyongyang will allow Kim Jong-un to implement a new economic direction. If he tries to do so, much uncertainty remains whether he will succeed in achieving an even modest-increase in the subsistence level standard of living that has gone from bad to worse over the past 20 years.