SEOUL — North Korea has announced the removal of its military chief, a key advisor to leader Kim Jong Un.
In a surprise radio announcement Monday, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho has been removed from all this posts because of illness.
The radio announcer said the decision was made by the Workers' Party central committee political bureau and included the removal of Ri from the presidium of the politburo, considered North Korea's most powerful body.
Ri became head of North Korea's army three years ago.
The terse announcement caught officials and analysts in South Korea by surprise. They note Pyongyang rarely removes top figures for health reasons.
Kim Hyung-suk is a spokesman for the Unification Ministry in Seoul, which oversees North-South relations.
Kim terms it as "very unusual" the announcement was broadcast less than a day after Ri was removed from his posts. He says South Korea's government has no more to say at this point and it is closely monitoring the situation for further information.
Analyst Chon Hyun-joon, a senior researcher at Seoul's state-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, contends that even if the 70-year-old Ri is actually ill, he would not have been dismissed from all of his positions.
Chon says there is no doubt Ri, a hardliner, lost a power struggle with moderates. The analyst says this denotes a collapse of one of the supports for the military - the other axis being the political chief of the army.
Chon predicts the change will allow Kim Jong Un to proceed with a more flexible diplomatic policy.
Ri, a third generation member of Pyongyang's elite inner circle, served in top positions under Kim Jong Il. He was one of the eight who walked alongside the late leader's hearse during the December 28, 2011 funeral procession.
Ri was last seen in public accompanying Kim Jong Un on July 8, during a commemoration of the death of the country's founder Kim Il Sung - the grandfather of the current leader.
Since the junior Kim took power his military increased its bellicose rhetoric towards the South.
The country also failed to launch what it claimed was a peaceful earth-observation satellite. The United States and its allies contend it was a ballistic missile launch April 13th that went awry.
An additional factor for the high tensions on the Korean peninsula is the North's nuclear-weapons development. There has been speculation that with the leadership change the impoverished country would soon conduct a third atomic test.
The two Koreas have no diplomatic relations. They fought a three-year war to a stalemate in the early 1950's. Since then the United States has maintained a significant military presence in the South.