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Key NK military official ousted from top ruling body

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (second from left, front row stands alongside members of the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers` Party of Korea, as he visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang on Thursday, to pay tribute to his grandfather and North Korea`s founder, Kim Il-sung, on the occasion of the 27th anniversary of the former leader`s death. Ri Pyong-chol (third row, in circle), vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers` Party, is seen on the third row in an indication that he might have been removed from the Presidium at its meeting late last month. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (second from left, front row stands alongside members of the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers` Party of Korea, as he visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang on Thursday, to pay tribute to his grandfather and North Korea`s founder, Kim Il-sung, on the occasion of the 27th anniversary of the former leader`s death. Ri Pyong-chol (third row, in circle), vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers` Party, is seen on the third row in an indication that he might have been removed from the Presidium at its meeting late last month. (KCNA-Yonhap)

Ri Pyong-chol, who has led North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, appears to have been ousted from the presidium of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, according to a photo released by the North’s state media on Thursday.

A picture released by the Korea Central News Agency showed Ri, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, missing from the front row alongside four other presidium members at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The photo was taken when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his entourage paid their respects to Kim’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il-sung, at the mausoleum on Thursday to mark the 27th anniversary of his death. 

Instead Ri was standing in the third row, behind Kim Jong-un, along with alternative members of the Politburo. He was wearing a black Mao suit instead of the military uniform he usually wore at political events.

This appeared to confirm his removal from the five-member body, which Kim Jong-un is also part of, a source said.

“There is a possibility that Ri has been demoted from the presidium to an alternative member, and also a change in military position, considering he was seen wearing a Mao suit,” a Unification Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

But the official said the ministry cannot yet confirm who is replacing Ri in the presidium, or whether the presidium will now consist of only four members, adding that it will continue to keep an eye on the election and other trends.

The presidium now consists of Kim Jong-un, Choe Ryong-hae, Kim Tok-hun and Jo Yong-won.

Earlier speculation over Ri’s ouster had emerged following the recent Politburo meeting where Kim Jong-un said a “grave incident” had happened in regards to the country’s COVID-19 prevention and fired several officials for neglecting their duties, without specifying details.

Pak Jong-chon, chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, who was also rumored to have been sacked, was standing in the row behind Kim Jong-un and was still wearing his military outfit. This indicates that he remains in the key leadership group, though he appears to have been demoted from marshal to vice marshal based on his shoulder insignia.

Kim Jong-un’s appearance at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun -- where the embalmed bodies of his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather lie -- comes as the leader’s recent weight loss has prompted speculation about his health.

The National Intelligence Service on Thursday estimated that Kim Jong-un had lost 10 to 20 kilograms, but had no major health problems affecting his rule.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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