North Korean state-run media reported Monday that the ruling Worker's Party had removed the country's powerful military chief, Ri Yong-ho, "because of illness." The move shocked virtually all foreign experts who closely follow the Hermit Kingdom's secretive communist government, as Ri was seen as a close adviser to Pyongyang's young ruler, Kim Jong Un, who took over in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Is Ri really sick, or is something else going on? Here, a brief guide:
Who is Ri?
Vice Marshall Ri, 69, was chief of the general staff of the Korean People's Army, appointed to the post three years ago by Kim Jong Il. The pair often appeared together at official functions, and in 2010 Ri won positions on the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party and the Presidium of the party's influential Political Bureau. That put him in the inner circle of the country's leaders. When Kim Jong Un took over, Ri essentially became his mentor, appearing with him to review military parades and attend state ceremonies.
Is Ri really sick?
Many observers doubt it. In recent appearances, he showed no signs of illness — and at one event just over a week ago, he and Kim seemed to be on good terms. The Workers' Party's ruling Politburo dismissed Ri in a rare Sunday meeting, feeding speculation that something was amiss. Typically, the government leaves top North Korean officials who are on solid ground in their posts even if they're terminally ill, but ousts those who are on the outs abruptly.
So what's a more plausible explanation?
It's simple, suggests Rick Moran at The American Thinker. There was "a power struggle between the military and new leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim has come out on top." Ri was reportedly a hardliner, favoring a confrontational approach with the U.S. and South Korea. The younger Kim, some analysts say, is showing signs of favoring a more moderate approach. Kim's father and grandfather before him frequently dismissed generals with no warning to make sure they wouldn't pose a threat. "These guys live the life of a fly," Lee Byong-chul, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, tells The New York Times. "This signals that Kim Jong Un's consolidation of power is proceeding faster than expected."
Is this a positive sign, then?
Maybe. If Ri was "hell bent on going to war," Moran says, it's a good thing the moderates have come out on top. Still, the shake-up has left the world wondering just who controls North Korea's million-man army, one of the world's largest. You could also look at the news, Kenneth Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA Strategic Studies, tells The Washington Post, as a sign that North Korea's new leader is taking firmer control over agencies within the government that "can use violence" to stifle dissent. What Kim Jong Un plans to do with his newfound power is anybody's guess.