North Korea's military chief Ri Yong-ho has been relieved of all his posts "because of illness," state media reported Monday.
According to the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the decision to relieve Ri of his posts was made during a meeting of the Workers' Party Central Committee politburo on Sunday. The report, however, did not elaborate on Ri's health condition. It also did not name his replacement.
In addition to being the vice-marshal of the Korean People's Army and the military's General Staff chief, Ri also held several senior posts in the ruling Workers' Party. He was made the army chief three years ago by former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who died in December.
Ever since Kim's death, Ri was seen by the outside world as the most important military figure in the power transition process that saw Kim Jong Un succeeding his father as the country's supreme leader. Experts believe that Ri's sudden departure will be a serious test for the new regime, as the military remains the key to retaining power in the reclusive Stalinist state.
Many believe that Ri shared a brother-like relationship with Kim Jong Il before is death in December, and was instrumental in ensuring that Kim Jong Un succeeded his father as planned. Ri is said to have played an important role in protecting younger Kim from potential challengers.
Incidentally, North Korea's disputed missile and nuclear programs have isolated the Communist State from the rest of the international community. The reclusive nation has been the subject of several international sanctions over Pyongyang's continued refusal to roll back its controversial missile and nuclear programs.
Concerns have grown after North Korea's failed launch of a long-range rocket on April 13 in defiance of previous UN resolutions, prompting the international community to tighten sanctions against the impoverished country.
The launch had sparked widespread international criticism, including from the United States, South Korea and the European Union, and was seen as a disguised long-range ballistic missile test as part of Pyongyang's preparation for a possible third nuclear test. But North Korea insists that the launch was meant for "peaceful purposes," and marked the birth centenary of its founder- leader Kim Il-sung.
Earlier, North Korea had announced a moratorium on its nuclear tests, uranium enrichment, and long-range missile testing in exchange for food aid in March, following a third round of talks with the United States in Beijing a month earlier.
The US has since suspended delivery of its planned food aid to North Korea in retaliation to the alleged missile test. Further, the UN Security Council condemned the rocket launch, and ordered tightening of UN sanctions imposed on North Korea over its disputed nuclear and missile programs in 2006 and 2009, and warned of further action if Pyongyang conducted another launch or a new nuclear test.
North Korea had agreed in 2005 to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for aid, but pulled out of the six-nation talks, involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan, on its disputed nuclear and missile programs in April 2009 after the UNSC condemned it for launching a rocket and imposed sanctions on several of its firms.
Soon after walking out of the talks, North Korea expelled US nuclear experts and IAEA inspectors monitoring its Yongbyon nuclear complex, conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009 and test-firing of several ballistic missiles. The UNSC responded to those actions by slamming tougher sanctions aimed at persuading Pyongyang to resume nuclear negotiations.
International diplomatic efforts to restart the six-party talks gained momentum last year, but the death of Kim Jong-Il left prospects for resumption of talks uncertain. The international community has since been keenly watching the sincerity of North Korea's untested new leader in addressing concerns triggered by his country's nuclear and missile programs.
by RTT Staff Writer
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