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2012年 07月 17日 10:21 wsj
The North Korean general closest to dictator Kim Jong Eun was relieved of all of his posts, a sudden move the North's state media attributed to illness but that outside observers believe was the first major power play of Mr. Kim's young regime.
The general, Ri Yong Ho, 69 years old, was close to the Kim family and perceived to have had a brother-like relationship with Kim Jong Il, who died in December and left his son Kim Jong Eun in charge of the authoritarian state.
Mr. Ri's fall from power was announced by the North's news agency just before 6 a.m. Monday with only a three-word elaboration─'for his illness'─to explain it. But outside analysts pointed to a sizable amount of evidence that Mr. Ri, his long history with the Kims notwithstanding, had been purged from power.
Among that evidence, Mr. Ri has appeared healthy in recent photos and attended an official event with Mr. Kim last week. In addition, North Korea's elder statesmen and elite tend to hold their titles until death, with aides taking their duties if bad health incapacitates them. Some analysts reached back to the 1960s for examples of North Korean elite losing their titles before death.
As well, the North's politburo, which approved the removal of titles, met on Sunday, something that analysts said may have never happened before.
And the absence of elaboration or praise of Mr. Ri's 52-year military career by the North's media is considered an embarrassment, or loss of face, in Korean tradition.
Immediately after the announcement, the North's news agency released a story describing a letter Mr. Kim wrote to a unit of the military's internal-security forces expressing thanks for its role in multiple construction projects. The Korean-language version of the report carried the letter itself, ending with Mr. Kim's name and his title as supreme commander of the North Korean military.
'That's definitely a signal to show who is in charge,' said Daniel Pinkston, Korea analyst in the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group.
Since the death of Kim Jong Il, the transition of power in North Korea has appeared smooth to the outside world, though the new regime has had little interaction with foreigners and limits information. It angered several nations in April by firing a long-range missile, in what it said was an attempt to launch a satellite into space. The rocket failed shortly after lift-off.
Mr. Ri was one of three people─along with Kim Jong Il's sister and her husband─outsiders view as protecting the younger Mr. Kim from potential challengers.
It's unlikely Mr. Ri actively plotted against Mr. Kim, analysts said, explaining that if he had, he would likely have been killed with no announcement. Instead, the circumstances suggest authoritarian power dynamics at their most raw.
'There's big shock value to waking up in Pyongyang on a Monday morning and hearing this,' Mr. Pinkston said. 'It shows nobody is bigger than the man himself.'
Kim Jong Eun, since shortly after the mourning period for his father, has worked to create an image that's like that of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. He's given two long speeches in public, something his father never did as North Korea's leader, and, like his voluble grandfather, is often photographed shaking hands, clasping arms and even hugging people.
At the same time, Mr. Kim has taken steps to solidify his grip on power and to appear fully in control, compensating in the view of some analysts for his young age, believed to be 28 or 29. Over the past two weeks, Mr. Kim has been photographed at three events in the company of a young woman who hasn't been identified by the North's media. That has fueled speculation that Mr. Kim has married or is depicting himself that way to appear older with a stable life.
'This is the process of building Kim Jong Eun's system,' said Kim Young-hyun, North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. With the departure of Mr. Ri, 'They got rid of a person who has a strong image in the military.'
Mr. Ri's influence became clear to outside analysts in 2003, when he was given several political titles and appointed commanding officer of the Pyongyang Defense Command, which is responsible for the defense of the North Korean capital city and, just as importantly from a power standpoint, the Kim family. He picked up several other political titles in 2007 and 2009.
At the end of an October 2010 leadership conference where the younger Mr. Kim was first introduced to the North Korean public and the world, Mr. Ri sat between the two Kims in a photograph of the participants in the event. A few days later, he was the highest-ranking person to speak to a crowd of tens of thousands at a military parade in downtown Pyongyang that the two Kims attended.
Mr. Ri was born in October 1942 and was about 18 months younger than Kim Jong Il. The two were childhood friends, according to some biographical accounts. Mr. Ri's father was a military colleague of Mr. Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, and the two grew up around each other. Mr. Ri walked alongside Mr. Kim's funeral hearse.
Mr. Ri's reported illness and departure from influence poses an early test of the strength of the younger Mr. Kim's new regime.
No successor was immediately named for Mr. Ri. He held multiple titles in the ruling Workers' Party as well as in the military.
In its three-sentence announcement, North Korea's state media said he would be leaving his duties in the five-person presidium of the political bureau, member of the political bureau of the party's central committee, and as one of two vice chairmen of the party's Central Military Commission, reporting to Kim Jong Eun directly.
Mr. Ri joined the military in 1959 while Kim Jong Il went to university, according to a biography written by Luke Herman, a North Korea scholar in San Diego.
Mr. Ri became a lieutenant general in 2002, then collected more titles in 2003, 2007 and 2009 before taking the central, highly visible role with the Kims in 2010.