SEOUL - North Korea's ruling party has removed a top military official close to the center of power, suggesting new leader Kim Jong-un and his closest advisers may be purging the ruling elite to strengthen their grip on the secretive state.
It is the latest surprise by the young Kim who last week stunned observers by jazzing up the ruling family dynasty's normally dour image when he appeared on state television in the company of a mystery young woman, cheerfully applauding scantily dressed female pop singers.
Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, who was seen as close to Kim's dictator father, was relieved of his posts in the Workers' Party of Korea at a politburo meeting on Sunday including the powerful role of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the state KCNA news agency said on Monday.
Illness was given as the reason for the move on Ri, who is 70 years old according to South Korean government database. Health is often used as the reason when senior officials are sacked.
"This is a sudden move, one that you could call a purge," said Cho Min of South Korea's Institute for National Unification who studies the North's leadership and its tactics.
Ri showed no sign of ill-health when he was seen in public a week ago with Kim Jong-un and senior military officials visiting a memorial in the capital Pyongyang honoring the founder of the state Kim Il-sung, and the current ruler's grandfather, on the anniversary of his death in 1994.
It was not clear from the brief report whether Ri, a career officer who rapidly rose through to top ranks of the army in recent years culminating in the appointment as Chief of General Staff, was also relieved of his military posts.
"The reason would be all speculation, but you might say Ri may have tried to firm up his own position which may have been to the dislike of Jang Song-thaek and Choe Ryong-hae," said Cho.
Jang is the young leader's uncle, married to Kim Jong-il's sister, and believed to be the real power behind the throne in the impoverished state as chief adviser to his nephew who is in his late 20s.
Choe is a senior party official who has taken on an increasingly powerful role within the in the political apparatus of the military in a state ruled by "military first policy," or Songun, preached by Kim's father Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-un took power after his father died last December.
Experts say there is heavy pressure on the new leadership to not only establish its political legitimacy but also ease discontent among an impoverished public.
The rule of Kim's father saw the economy dragged deeper into poverty from mismanagement and increasingly tough international sanctions over his efforts to develop a more lethal armory, including nuclear weapons.
By the time he died, the country could not feed itself even during good harvests and had become heavily dependent on help from neighboring China to feed a population of 24 million.
Ri had been member of an eight-man procession which walked with the hearse carrying Kim Jong-il in a state funeral in December, and was subsequently seen at the new leader's side.
"'Due to illness' has to be an excuse, I think," said Kim Yong-hyun who teaches North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "It is more likely the result of a power struggle that is shaping up in the Kim Jong-un regime."
Cho of the Korea Institute for National Unification said he believed the plan to oust Ri had been in the making for several months.
"This is likely the conclusion, rather than the beginning, of a series of moves to reshuffle the military. I believe 200 mid-level officers in the military have already been removed as part of Jang and Choe's reorganization of the country."