SEOUL -- North Korea has removed from its top leadership an official who played a major role in developing the regime's nuclear and missile arsenal, a newly released photo indicates.
The evident downgrade of Ri Pyong Chol, a leading adviser to Kim Jong Un, comes just over a week after the autocrat mentioned a "grave incident" that hobbled the country's coronavirus response.
The presidium of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, previously had five members including Ri and Kim. But a photo released by the state's Korean Central News Agency suggests that Ri is no longer a member.
The photo shows Kim visiting his family's mausoleum in Pyongyang early Thursday to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the death of grandfather Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder.
Kim, grouped with several senior officials, stood in the front row flanked by three other members of the presidium. Ri stood in the third row alongside reserve members of the presidium.
The positioning strongly suggests that Ri lost his place on the presidium, to which he was appointed in August 2020. The South Korean intelligence community thinks Ri now directs the ruling party's Munitions Industry Department.
Ri, who served as an air force commander, was involved in developing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. He was present during test launches of new rockets. Ri could regain his former position, as North Korea's leadership still appears committed to expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles.
During a Politburo meeting June 29, Kim chastised senior officials who neglected to implement the party's agenda for epidemic prevention, thus "creating a grave incident in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people."
A leadership reshuffle ensued, but state media have not reported on the specifics of the replacements, leaving North Korea watchers to speculate.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service issued a report to lawmakers Thursday suggesting that the "grave incident" stems from North Korea's failure to reopen trade with China.
A disinfection center was supposed to be established at a military airfield to help restart trade, but preparations were inadequate. The military's management of rice stockpiles also has come under question, according to the NIS.