North Koreans applaud during a ceremony held at Pyongyang indoor gymnasium to celebrate their leader Kim Jong-un’s promotion to marshal, Thursday, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency. Yonhap
By Lee Tae-hoon
Military insiders Friday raised the possibility that an armed clash took place during the North Korean regime’s recent removal of its army chief Ri Yong-ho. They said it is likely gunshots were exchanged during the process of dismissing him.
“It is highly likely that Ri’s security squad engaged in a firefight with troops deployed to execute the leadership’s instruction to unseat him and prevent a possible coup against the top military official,” an official of the Ministry of National Defense said.
“However, it will take a considerable amount of time to confirm this.”
North Korea announced Monday that it had relieved Vice Marshal Ri, Chief of the General Staff of the North's People’s Army, of all his posts due to “illness,” fuelling speculation of a military power struggle inside the Stalinist regime.
Citing an unidentified intelligence source, a local daily reported that Ri might have been wounded or killed when his guards engaged in an armed conflict following his abrupt dismissal.
“A gun battle broke out when the North Korean regime removed army chief Ri Yong-ho from office, leaving 20 to 30 soldiers dead,” the source was quoted as saying.
The paper suggested that the gun battle would have broken out when Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, director of the People's Army General Political Bureau, tried to detain Ri upon the orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Gen. Jung Seung-jo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also did not rule out the possibility of a bloody clash.
Although he noted that the military has yet to receive any intelligence that confirms the growing speculation about possible bloodshed.
“Nothing is confirmed over the alleged gun battle,” he said.
“Ri Yong-ho’s dismissal might have occurred due to a health problem as the North announced or because of a range of other issues, such as a blunder in a personal or official affair or because of a power struggle.”
Jung, however, noted that Ri’s removal seems to suggest power struggles taking place within the regime.
Choe, reportedly involved in the armed clash with Ri, is believed to be the right-hand man of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle and patron of the young North Korean leader.
He is known to have made his career in the Workers’ Party rather than the army. Choe has repeatedly clashed with Ri.