North Korean military chief, Central Military Commission (CMC) vice-chairman and Worker’s Party Politbureau Presidium member Ri Yong-ho has been removed from all official posts “because of illness”, the BBC quotes North Korean media. A spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry called the move “very unusual”.
The CMC chairmanship has been held by Kim Jong-un since April 2012. Kim became North Korea’s supreme leader after his father’s death in December 2011.
An Associated-Press article interprets Ri’s removal as a step taken by Kim Jong-un. The article also emphasizes Kim Jong Un’s drive to build up the nation’s economy. The article also points out that Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, ruled under a “military first” policy.
Singapore’s Morning News (Lianhe Zaobao):
[North Korea's] KCNA reported on July 16 that North Korean Workers Party Central Committee’s Politbureau held a meeting on July 15 and decided to relieve permanent Politbureau member and Chief of General Staff Ri Yong-ho [Chinese: Li Yinghao, 李英浩] of all his duties. According to reports, the meeting decided to relieve him of all duties, including his permanent Politbureau membership, Politbureau membership, and CMC vice-chairmanship, because of “suffering from illness”.
Chinese media reported Ri’s removal right away, but while Singapore’s Morning News quotes assumptions from South Korean institutions that the move may have been made for political reasons, China’s Xinhua News Agency simply quotes KCNA itself.
Huanqiu Shibao offers no interpretation beyond KCNA’s “health” explanations either, but adds a KCNA snapshot to spice things up a bit. Via an emoticon board, 311 readers (at the time of writing this post) express amazement or shock (震惊), 71 are bored, and 45 find the news ridiculous. But in the commenter thread, “linqinghu” finds the news very Chinese, very familiar (很中国，很熟悉), and “Xiaoyao Guoke” has a question: Whenever news about North Korea is reported, it’s is it always KCNA? Hard to believe that Xinhua has no reporters there!!?? (有一个问题搞不懂：但凡报道朝鲜的新闻，为什么总听韩联社的！？难道新华社在朝鲜就没有记者吗). There appears to be at least one reporter from Huanqiu Shibao itself in Pyongyang, actually.
Interpretation of the currently meager news is likely to follow in mainland Chinese media soon, and Beijing, if not informed about the backgrounds, will hope that the North Korean leadership’s economic priorities as alluded to by Associated Press (see above, third paragraph) will turn out to be the true driving motivation behind Ri Yong-ho’s removal.
Or, as Adam Cathcart interpreted some outspoken Chinese press coverage – as a message to then Kim Jong-il’s officialdom, in December 2010: just stop the nonsense and make some money (i. e., care about the economy). “Nonsense”, back then, wouldn’t refer directly to Kim Jong-il’s military-first policies, but to stand-offs with South Korea.
China’s propaganda department may find it a bit too early to declare victory on North Korea’s economic front just yet.
A source to watch this week should be Sino-NK, a website dedicated to background information (plus some gossip) on North Korean politics, and on North-Korean and Chinese interaction.
Update: Chasing the General Ri, SinoNK, July 19, 2012
» Very Mysterious, but…, WSJ, July 17, 2012