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Ouster of general shows North Korean leader consolidating power

SEOUL — In the first months of Kim Jong Un’s rule over North Korea, Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho was one of the officials most often seen with him.

They inspected military barracks and reviewed parades together. Photos often showed the young leader leaning in to listen to the general, and laughing. Just a week ago, Ri was seen standing next to Kim at an important state ceremony.

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But Monday, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency startled Pyongyang watchers with the announcement that Ri, chief of the general staff of the Korean People’s Army and widely seen as one of Kim’s most trusted mentors, had been removed from all posts because of ‘‘illness.’’ The Politburo of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea dismissed him in a rare meeting convened Sunday.

Since Kim replaced his father, Kim Jong Il, at the top of North Korea’s opaque hierarchy after the elder Kim’s death in December, analysts have scanned nearly every scrap of information coming out of the country for clues to the new leader’s intentions.

With Monday’s development, some analysts say one thing at least is clear: Kim Jong Un is wielding his family’s favorite tool of control: using and discarding the senior officials around him like pawns.

On Tuesday morning, the official Korean Central News Agency announced that General Hyon Yong Chola was named to succeed Ri in the post of vice marshal of the army. It was not immediately clear if he would receive any of Ri’s other titles.

The inner workings of political power in North Korea are shrouded in mystery, with top officials often demoted, made to disappear, reinstated, or killed in suspicious ‘‘traffic accidents’’ in North Korea. Ensuring such unpredictability in any general’s career was seen as a crucial method used by Kim Jong Il, and his father, Kim Il Sung, before him, to tame generals and party secretaries.

‘‘These guys live the life of a fly,’’ said Lee Byong Chul, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. ‘‘This signals that Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power is proceeding faster than expected.’’

The circumstances of Ri’s apparent fall raise questions. Few analysts had suspected him of health problems. Rather, the 69-year-old vice marshal looked vigorous, compared with the other aging officials surrounding Kim. Besides, octogenarian party secretaries and generals with serious illness were often allowed to keep their jobs until they died.

But the Kim dynasty has a long history of seemingly wanton political persecution.

In late 2009, when its attempt to crack down on black market activities and arrest inflation by radically devaluing its currency backfired, aggravating a food crisis and triggering highly unusual outbursts of protest in the totalitarian state, the regime executed its top party financial official. The official, Pak Nam Gi, faced trumped-up charges of antirevolutionary activities, according to intelligence officials in Seoul.

Ri’s dismissal came as Kim has begun projecting himself as a leader self-confident enough to attempt significant departures from his father’s ruling style. Earlier this month, he was shown on state television clapping hands at such icons of American pop culture as Mickey Mouse and Rocky Balboa.

He also appeared with a young woman widely believed to be his wife, which would mark the first time in many years that most ordinary North Koreans could see their leader’s wife on television.

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