What's behind the sacking of North Korean military supremo Ri Yong-ho? The answer, of course, is that no one outside Pyongyang really knows. The assumption by Western reporters, in the absence of anything on which to base their speculations, is that what we are seeing here - and with his new rank of marshal - is a consolidation of power by the Machiavellian Prince Kim Jong-un. The Guardian, for instance:
North Korea's sudden dismissal of its military chief this week was designed to remove opposition to major economic reforms about to be initiated by the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, it has been claimed.
Citing an unnamed source with close ties to the governments in Beijing and the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, Reuters said Ri Yong-ho had been sacked for opposing plans to seize control of economic policy from the military.
Ri had been one of the regime's most enthusiastic champions of the "songun" military-first policy pioneered by the country's former leader, Kim Jong-il, who died in December.
The state-controlled Korean Central News Agency had said illness had been behind the decision to relieve Ri of all of his posts, including the influential role of vice-chairman of the ruling party's central military commission.
His removal was the clearest signal yet that Kim Jong-un – Kim Jong-il's youngest son – is determined to implement long-overdue reforms to save the economy and prevent the regime from imploding.
This is wishful thinking. However much we might like it to be true, there are no signs that Kim Jong-un is keen to reform the system against the wishes of the hard-liners, or that he wants to challenge the "songun" military-first policy set in place by his father and grandfather. On the contrary. Of course he could be playing a very clever game - cosying up to the military before stabbing them in the back. It does seem unlikely though. Joshua Stanton pours cold water on the young genius theory:
Of course, I have no more direct evidence to prove that Kim Jong Un isn’t in charge than anyone else has to prove that he is, but there is evidence is that Kim Jong Un is a spoiled, unserious, inattentive, and unprepared man trying to compete with some of the most wizened and ruthless psychopaths on the face of this earth. Can someone who couldn’t even complete high school really impose his will on a den of generals and apparatchiks who would make the Borgias cringe? What have we seen Kim Jong Un do or say that suggests even average intelligence, guile, or character? At a time when his handlers are trying to deify him as a selfless, statesmanlike savant and erase deep popular antipathy toward him, he’s letting himself be photographed with a woman who might be the wife of a military officer (and mother of said officer’s child) in an oh-we’re-definitely-doing-it-alright pose, watching floor shows of leggy damsels and unlicensed Disney characters. It has to be obvious that the North Korean people will find out about this in due course, and they’re much too conservative a people, socially speaking, to accept it. This is not the public behavior of a master of intrigue.
And now, breaking news from the Chosun Ilbo:
A gunbattle broke out when the North Korean regime removed army chief Ri Yong-ho from office, leaving 20 to 30 soldiers dead, according to unconfirmed intelligence reports. Some intelligence analysts believe Ri, who has not been seen since his abrupt sacking earlier this week, was injured or killed in the confrontation.
According to government officials here, the gunbattle erupted when Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the People's Army General Political Bureau, tried to detain Ri in the process of carrying out leader Kim Jong-un's order to sack him. Guards protecting Ri, who is a vice marshal, apparently opened fire. "We cannot rule out the possibility that Ri was injured or even killed in the firefight," said one source.
Choe is believed to be the right-hand man of Jang Song-taek, the uncle and patron of the young North Korean leader. He made his career in the Workers Party rather than the army. After being appointed director of the bureau, Choe repeatedly clashed with Ri, who came up as a field commander, prompting Choe to keep Ri under close watch and apparently triggering an internal probe targeting the army chief.
So, if this is true, we're getting a picture of violent power struggles behind the scenes, while young figure-head Kim Jong-un - Nero-like - fiddles with his new lady-love.