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North Korea military chief, ally of new leader, relieved of duty

Kcna Via Kns / AFP - Getty Images

North Korea's military chief of staff Ri Yong Ho is shown earlier this year.

SEOUL -- North Korea's military chief, a close ally of the reclusive state's new leader Kim Jong Un, has been relieved of all his posts due to illness, the country's official news media said on Monday.

Ri Yong Ho was relieved of all his political posts in the ruling Workers' Party Korea at a politburo meeting on Sunday, including a powerful position as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, North Korea's official KCNA news agency said. 

Ri, 70, is a career military man who held the rank of vice-marshal, according to South Korean government database.

Ri has been a prominent member of new leader Kim's circle of close political allies. Kim took power after his father Kim Jong-il died last December.

It was not clear who would succeed Ri. North Korea didn't elaborate on Ri's condition or future.

Ri has been at Kim Jong Un's side since the young man emerged as his father Kim Jong Il's successor in 2010, often standing between father and son at major events. That role appeared to deepen after Kim Jong Il's death in December, helping the younger Kim solidify support among the military.

Ri wielded power from his position at the intersection of three crucial institutions: the Korean People's Army, the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party and the Standing Committee of the party's influential Political Bureau.

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Ri also oversaw an influential Kim Jong Un support group comprising officers in their 50s and 60s whom commanders consider rising stars, according to Ken Gause, a North Korea specialist at CNA, a U.S.-based research organization.

Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at private Sejong Institute near Seoul, was skeptical about the illness claim, saying that when top North Korean officials do get sick, they typically remain in office while deputies handle their duties. There had been no previous sign that Ri was ill, he added.

Kyodo / Reuters file

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, exchanges smiles with the chief of general staff of the Korean People's Army Ri Yong Ho during a military parade in February. Yong was relieved of duties Sunday, the state's news agency reported.

Hong said the change appears aimed at replacing an appointee of Kim's late father with a closer confidant.

"It can be seen as part of a general change," Hong said, adding that he expects similar news on the dismissal of other aging, senior officials will come out in coming weeks.

Animosity on the Korean Peninsula has deepened since a North Korean rocket launch in April that the U.N. called a cover for a banned long-range missile test. North Korea says it was a satellite launch.

North Korea has repeatedly threatened harm to South Korea's president and his supporters in recent months, angry over perceived insults to its leadership and recent U.S.-South Korean military drills that Pyongyang says are a prelude to an invasion.

This article includes reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press.

When North Korea's new young leader spoke in public he surprised his own people and the world. Nothing like that had been seen or heard for years. Kim Jong Un's apparent openness was revolutionary, so too was his promise to end hunger. ITN's Angus Walker reports.

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