Army move raises fears of Korean instability

North Korea is reshuffling its most powerful institution, the military, dismissing its army chief and promoting a little-known general to an important position in the million-man force.

Illness was the reason cited for the departure of Ri Yong Ho – a key mentor to young ruler Kim Jong Un – but most suspect a purge by Kim as he tries to shape the government he inherited seven months ago.

The announcement of Hyon Yong Chol’s promotion could further that goal; his is the fourth vice-marshal appointment North Korea has made public since the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Instability is a major cause of concern in the West because any behind-the-scenes power struggle raises fears of the implosion of the bizarre poverty-stricken regime based on a personality cult but armed with nuclear weapons.

Ri’s departure could mean he lost a power struggle with rising star Choe Ryong Hae, the military’s top political officer.

The authoritarian nation maintains one of the world’s largest armies, builds up its nuclear weapons and missile programmes in defiance of sanctions, and regularly makes warlike threats directed at South Korea and Washington.

News of Hyon’s promotion in the Korean People’s Army followed the announcement Monday that Ri, a vice marshal who had been chief of the general staff of the army since 2009, was dismissed because of illness, according to state media.

Ri had been at Kim Jong Un’s side throughout his transition to leadership and after his father’s death, and appeared healthy in a public appearance just days ago. Analysts were sceptical about the official explanation for his abrupt departure.

“There’s a very high probability that it wasn’t health issues, but that he was purged,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst.

Ri’s departure comes as Kim Jong Un is making his mark in other ways. Last weekend, state TV showed him watching a concert and visiting a kindergarten in the company of a mysterious woman.