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Kim sacks mentor in army 'purge'

North Korea is reshuffling its most powerful institution, the military, dismissing its army chief and promoting a little-known general to an important position in the million-man force.

Illness was the reason cited for the departure of Ri Yong Ho - a key mentor to young ruler Kim Jong Un - but to some outside analysts it resembled a purge by Kim as he tries to shape the government he inherited seven months ago.

The announcement of Hyon Yong Chol's promotion could further that goal; his is the fourth vice marshal appointment North Korea has made public since the death of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il.

The changes have significant but as yet unclear implications for North Korea's relationship with its neighbours and the United States, which stations more than 28,000 troops in ally South Korea.

The authoritarian nation maintains one of the world's largest armies, builds up its nuclear weapons and missile programmes despite broad condemnation and sanctions, and regularly flings warlike rhetoric at Seoul and Washington.

News of Hyon's promotion in the Korean People's Army followed the announcement on Monday that Ri, a vice marshal who had been chief of the general staff of the army since 2009, was dismissed from his high-ranking posts in the military and the Workers' Party because of illness, according to state media.

No details were provided about who might succeed Ri as army chief.

Ri had been at Kim Jong Un's side throughout his transition to leadership and after his father's death, and appeared healthy in a public appearance just days ago. Analysts were sceptical about the official explanation for his abrupt departure. "There's a very high probability that it wasn't health issues, but that he was purged," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group.

He noted that Ri, 69, won his major promotions at a September 2010 party conference but received none at another major conference in April, stirring speculation about his future. Even if Ri never directly defied the new leader, his departure would send a strong warning to anyone seeking to challenge Kim Jong Un, Mr Pinkston said.

Ri's departure comes as Kim Jong Un is making his mark in other ways. Last weekend, state TV showed him watching a concert and visiting a kindergarten in the company of a mysterious woman who carried herself much like a first lady. Her identity has not been revealed, but making her presence public was a notable change from Kim Jong Il's era, when his companions were kept out of official media.

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