North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has demoted his country’s highest-ranking military leader in the onset of a purge of those held responsible for a mysterious “great crisis.”
The blame game indicates that North Korea is “facing major economic and health issues because of COVID,” said Bruce Bechtol, a former Pentagon intelligence analyst and author of numerous books and studies on North Korea’s leadership. “They have done their best to hide it… [but] the country is in big trouble right now.”
Having “already reshuffled positions,” said Bechtol, “The next big step would be an uptick in executions in order to assign blame.”
The dismissal of Ri Pyong Chol from the politburo of the Workers’ Party was confirmed in a photograph released by North Korea showing dozens of top party officials at an elaborate ceremony marking the 27th anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung, founder of the North Korean regime and Kim’s grandfather. Conspicuous in the picture is Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who’s not on the politburo but still believed to be the country’s second most powerful leader.
In an ongoing campaign to rein in the power of the armed forces, Ri is pointedly in civilian garb in the formal group photograph in the shrine where the bodies of Kim’s grandfather and father, Kim Jong Il, lie embalmed under glass. His uniform would have displayed his rank as a marshal above a chest full of military medals.
The exact nature of the crisis is not clear, but the armed forces are widely blamed for not distributing foodstuffs to a populace perpetually underfed if not starving. That failure is assumed to have been one big reason for downgrading top military leaders.
North Korea “is in economic trouble” from sanctions plus “China’s failure to provide a big food shipment,” said analyst Shim Jae-hoon, formerly with Yale Global. “Food shortage is turning acute now. Kim must guard his dwindling hard currency lest he runs out of emergency funds.”
“People are dying for lack of food and medicine,” wrote Jiro Ishimaru for Asia Press, a news agency in Osaka, Japan, that often reports on the suffering of North Koreans. “Since the beginning of June, the lives of the North Korean people have been deteriorating.”
Ishimaru blamed the crisis on Kim Jong Un for having “closed the borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, preventing people from coming in and out of the country.” He said he obtained information through a Chinese cellphone smuggled into North Korea. News of North Korea’s troubles is still getting out that way despite severe punishment, including death, for those caught using Chinese mobiles.
The campaign against North Korea’s military leadership also affected the standing of numerous others, notably Pak Jong Chon, shown in the picture still in uniform but with a somewhat less exalted military rank.
“With his shoulder insignia changed, it appears Pak was demoted from marshal of the Korean People’s Army, the highest military rank under Kim Jong Un, to vice-marshal,” according to NK News, an independent website in Seoul. Also, “Defense Minister Kim Jong Gwan appeared to have lost his…
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