North Korea's army chief has been relieved of all his posts due to illness, state media has said, in a surprise
development that removes one of new leader Kim Jong-un's inner circle.
Ri Yong-ho is regarded as one of the key figures who has helped support the young, untested leader in the transition following the death in December of his father Kim Jong-il, the longtime leader of the reclusive state.
69-year-old, who became head of the army in 2009 with the official title Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People's Army, has often been seen accompanying the young Kim on visits to military bases in recent months.
The North's official KCNA news agency said that a meeting of top officials from the ruling party on Sunday took the decision to relieve him of his posts.
"A meeting of the political bureau of the central committee of the workers' party decided to relieve Ri Yong-ho of all his posts for his illness," it said.
He was removed from the "presidium of the politburo", the country's most powerful body with only a handful of members, the agency said.
He would also no longer be "vice-chairman of the central military commission of the" Workers' Party of Korea, the North's ruling party, it added.
South Korean officials say they are surprised at the speed of Ri's dismissal, and that it was done so publicly.
"There was an internal meeting within North Korea yesterday, on 15 July. We believe it is very unusual for North Korea to quickly and openly report the meeting result. We will keep monitoring closely the situation in the North," said Kim Hyung-suk, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman.
John Delury from Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul, told Al Jazeera: "Well this is the first major reshuffle, whether it’s through illness or not, we'd have to wait and see. The next big thing will be who replaces Vice Marshal Ri…"
The general was one of seven top party and military cadres who accompanied Kim when he walked alongside the hearse carrying the body of Kim Jong-il during his funeral.
The seven - including Kim's powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek - were considered central figures in bolstering the new regime led by Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s.
Ri was seen accompanying Kim recently as the leader paid tribute in a ceremony in Pyongyang to his late grandfather Kim il-Sung on the anniversary of his death in 1994.
The North's military has in recent months ratcheted up hostile rhetoric towards South Korea and President Lee Myung-bak partly in a bid to burnish its new leader's credentials.
The North last month denounced US-South Korean drills near the tense border as a "provocation" and vowed to "further bolster up its nuclear deterrent", state media reported.
It was the latest sign of high tensions after the North's failed rocket launch in April, seen by the US and its allies as an attempted ballistic missile test.
The North has been developing nuclear weapons for decades. Its official position has been that it needs them for self-defence against a US nuclear threat, but that it is willing in principle to scrap the atomic weaponry.
Source: Al Jazeera and Agencies