North Korea’s influential Army chief has been removed from all of his posts because of “illness”, State media reported on Monday in an announcement seen by many analysts as a rare signal of political change taking place behind the walls of the reclusive Hermit Kingdom under its young new leader.

Army Chief Ri Yong Ho’s removal was announced following a surprise Sunday meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, which decided to remove the powerful Vice-Marshal from his posts in the Political Bureau and the Central Military Commission, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). His removal was “due to his illness”.

Analysts have, however, expressed doubts whether the sudden removal of the 70-year-old, who was seen as close to the newly-ascended leader Kim Jong-un, was indeed because of his health. Only recently, Mr. Ri had been seen in photographs, showing no apparent signs of illness, standing beside the young Kim, who has been consolidating his position following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December.

The Army chief was thought to be among a small group of influential figures who would play a key role in the transition of power this year as the younger Kim marks the start of his rule. Others in the group include Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui and his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who could see his influence expand following Mr. Ri’s removal.

Military grip

“We cannot rule out the possibility that the army chief of the General Staff Ri Yong-ho was dismissed on account of Kim Jong-un’s unsatisfactory military grip or as a result of a power struggle in North Korea,” Chang Yong-suk, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group, also questioned the illness claim in comments to the Associated Press, suggesting that his removal could reflect a consolidation of power by the younger Kim .

“There’s a very high probability,” he said, “that it wasn’t health issues but that he was purged.”

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