On July 15th, a Central Committee Politburo meeting was held in Pyongyang. It was called, according to the North Korean state media, to deal with an “organizational issue”. The result was that regime heavyweight Lee Young Ho (aka Ri Yong Ho) was relieved of all his Party duties; namely his Politburo Standing Committee membership, Politburo membership, and Party Central Military Commission vice-chairmanship.
Until yesterday, Lee had been an influential member of Party and military alike. In particular, he is widely credited with having achieved the smooth transition of military authority to Kim Jong Eun (although the process is not complete). He was not just in charge of the 5 million regular and irregular members of the North Korean military as Chief of Staff; he was also a member of all the most important agencies of the Chosun Workers’ Party itself. These facts make his removal a rare and important event.
Yet according to Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA) his removal was brought about by mere ill health. However, the meeting at which his removal was announced was attended by the entire Politburo standing committee, Politburo members and candidate members, making ill health seem implausibly minor. This, coupled to the fact that in North Korea the phrase “organizational issue” ordinarily means that a given official is in serious trouble, has led many analysts and experts to believe that Lee has been purged.
▲ Was Lee purged in a regime power struggle?
Kim Kwang In of the North Korea Strategy Center immediately pointed out after being told the news, “Cho Myung Rok, the former director of People’s Army General Political Department, was also in very poor health, yet he was in all his positions until he died. Based on that fact, this doesn’t seem to have been a health problem.”
Rather, he went on, “When Kim Jong Il was alive, Lee was at the core of laying the groundwork for the succession, so for him to be removed from every position makes it highly likely that some kind of feud has been going on in the regime.”
Bearing in mind recent moves in the direction of economic change, the suspicion in some quarters is that Lee has been sacrificed to block off future efforts by military hardliners (whom he could have led) to stop reformists, or that he had already expressed his objection to reform and was removed as a result.
This theory is lent weight by the reemergence of former Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju and his former deputy Roh Du Cheol, and the emergence of Choi Ryong Hae. Pak previously fell from grace after attacks from the military following North Korea’s last attempt at “capitalist” reforms but is now back and at the helm of the Party Light Industry Department, which oversees the civilian economy. Roh is doing similar work from his position in the Cabinet. Choi, meanwhile, heads the military’s General Political Department but is not a military man and has recently been out on a number of visits to sites where the military is engaging in civilian economy sector work.
Choi, Roh and Pak are members of a group of elite figures that lives under the protective wing of ‘power couple’ Jang Sung Taek and Kim Kyung Hee; in this context, Lee stands out as not having been in the same boat as this group, and the idea that he was sacrificed by them is lent credence by that fact.
According to one expert in Seoul, “If they are proposing to try for ‘North Korean-style’ reform and opening then they need to have complete control over the military. At the moment the Party is displaying its absolute dominance over the military, and for that nothing could be more effective than removing Lee.”
▲ Or as a scapegoat for Kim Jong Eun’s teething troubles?
Lee was at the very core of the military aspect of the 3rd generation succession, and played a leading role in preparing the rocket launch that was intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung in mid-April and announce the full grasping of the levers of power by Kim Jong Eun
However, as is well known, the rocket exploded and fell embarrassingly into the sea off Baekryeong Island after two minutes. What should have shown that Kim Jong Il lives on in the form of his military achievements ended up showing off the considerable limitations of North Korea’s military technology.
Not only was it a domestic flop; the results of the April debacle were wide-ranging on the international front, too. Relations with the U.S. deteriorated and the February 29th ‘Leap Day Agreement’ turned into a pile of scrap paper, while relations with China took a frosty turn as well. Pyongyang was ultimately forced to go public saying that a third nuclear test was not planned, although it had seemed to be in the making. The reasons for this are unclear, although reports have suggested that Beijing informed Pyongyang that it should not go ahead.
The situation was summarized by Kim Yeon Soo of National Defense University this morning, when he said, “The most famous military face in the regime has been thrown to the wolves as a scapegoat for Kim Jong Eun’s initial errors, and now the regime is showing that it intends to try reform and opening.”
▲ Or perhaps it really was just health problems…?
In reports of Lee’s removal health problems are cited, and it is feasible that this is the truth. In 2009, Kim Young Chun was moved from Chief of Staff to Minister for the People’s Armed Forces. This was seen internationally as part of the 3rd generation succession, but inside North Korea it is common knowledge that Kim’s hearing was failing him so he needed to be transferred out. The Chief of Staff is at the very core of the group of officials responsible for implementing Supreme Commander Kim Jong Eun’s orders in terms of military strategy, military exercises and weapons systems; as such, loss of hearing or some other health issue is indeed a serious one and worthy of removal.
However, Lee lost all his positions not merely that of Chief of Staff, making this analysis look unsustainable. Other suggestions seem to carry far more validity overall.