North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

The Fall of Ri Yong Gil

Gen. Ri Yong Gil at one of his last observed appearances in January 2016 (Photo: KCTV screengrab).

Gen. Ri Yong Gil at one of his last observed appearances in January 2016 (Photo: KCTV screengrab).

General Ri Yong Gil has been removed from office as Chief of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] General Staff.  There are two different accounts about General Ri’s dismissal.  The initial report from ROK intelligence sources was that he was publicly dismissed on February 2 during the first ever joint expanded meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea [WPK] Central Committee and the Korean People’s Army [KPA] WPK Committee.  According to this account General Ri was accused of acts of factionalism and insubordination and he was arrested and executed.

The second account of General Ri’s removal from office, via Daily NK, is somewhat similar.  The key difference is that in this account, General Ri was arrested and detained by the Ch’angkwang Security Bureau during the party gathering, but had not been executed.  According to Daily NK, one of the reasons behind Ri Yong Gil’s arrest had less to do with factionalism and more to do with the sticky wicket of DPRK civilian-military relations. The report said that “underpinning the general’s demise were his grievances about so-called ‘pure Party cadres” (the likes of Choe Ryong Hae, Hwang Pyong So, Jo Yon Jun, et. al) lacking experience with military organizations yet somehow soaring unfettered to the general rank and exerting, by Ri’s assertion, unearned authority. A protracted power conflict rumbled beneath the surface, ultimately exploding into accusations that Ri had routinely ‘defied the Party order imposed on the military.'”  



Complexes of the Ch’angkwang Security Bureau, a unit of the Ministry of the People’s Security whose mission is the investigation, arrest and detention of senior DPRK officials (Photos: NK Leadership Watch).

Both of these accounts paint approximately the same picture.  A stalwart military man plucked from relative obscurity to serve in the high command who eventually found himself marginalized.  General Ri, like several other senior military officials to fall by the wayside during the past few years, had the misfortune to be appointed to high military office as Kim Jong Un irons out the kinks of DPRK civil-military relations and establishes a command-and-control system to suit his leadership style.  Part of this involves horse trading and haggling among the five patronage networks within the KPA who squabble amongst themselves over resources, weapons systems, real estate and personnel appointments.  Linked to this is Jong Un’s attempt formalize the authority, role and functions of a variety of state party, military and government institutions.

In the context of the KPA this has involved the party reasserting formal control over the military by strengthening the institutional authority and role of the KPA General Political Department [GPD].  While the GPD’s role in military promotions and personnel matters has remained constant, during the later years of Kim Jong Il’s rule the GPD’s control over the daily affairs of the military and its routine ideological indoctrination efforts largely receded.  Kim Jong Un, who cut his leadership teeth in part with elements of the GPD, has prioritized the role of the GPD over that of the General Staff and Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces [MPAF] within the military and the high command.  He has even reverted to appointing civilian party managers as heads of the GPD like his grandfather Kim Il Sung, as opposed to career military officers like his father.

One recurring message during Kim Jong Un’s field inspections of military units has been the insufficiency of “political work” (i.e. ideological indoctrination) in the KPA. This was the primary reason that Choe Ryong Hae was replaced as GPD Director by VMar Hwang Pyong So.  Interestingly, Ri Yong Gil was appointed Chief of the General Staff when Choe Ryong Hae was GPD Director.  In what might entirely be a coincidence, Ri Yong Gil disappeared from public life a week before Choe Ryong Hae made his first public appearance following his three month re-education period.

Chiefs of the KPA General Staff who have been reassigned or dismissed under Kim Jong Un (Photo: NK Leadership Watch graphic).

Chiefs of the KPA General Staff who have been reassigned or dismissed under Kim Jong Un

Whatever the final outcome for General Ri Yong Gil, his dismissal marks the fourth time the Chief of the KPA General Staff has changed since he assumed the supreme leadership.  The number of changes to high command (which is to say the Director of the KPA General Political Department, Chief of the General Staff, Minister of People’s Armed Forces, Director of the General Staff Operations Bureau and 1st Vice Minister of the People’s Armed Forces) is approximately 21.  This does not account for changes in the lower 1st and 2nd tier command positions within the KPA General Staff apparatus (including replacing commanders of KPA service branches and ground corps units), in the KPA General Political Department and MPAF and various vice ministers, section chiefs and senior managers throughout the internal security apparatus.

A lot of media attention and analysis has focused on these numerous KPA personnel changes having occurred since Kim Jong Un took power.  However, this began when Kim Jong Il was still alive and in power.  Until Jong Un’s accession in 2011-2012, the largest military shake-up in the DPRK’s history occurred in February 2009, about a month after Jong Un’s succession was formalized by his father and uncle.  At that time, O Kuk Ryol was elevated to the National Defense Commission, Ri Yong Ho was appointed Chief of the KPA General Staff, Kim Yong Chun was appointed Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, Kim Kyok Sik transferred to command of the IV Army Corps, Kim Il Chol appointed 1st Vice Minister of the People’s Armed Forces and Kim Yong Chol appointed Director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau.  So, Jong Un is continuing something that began with his own succession.

An affiliate of 38 North