North Korea: Winners and losers

North Korea's Olympics team heads for London Photo: APTN

North Korea's top athletes are on their way to London today with high hopes of winning medals in Judo, weightlifting and wrestling.

The reclusive country, politically isolated, has a long history of competing at the Games and has won 41 medals since 1964.

The team leaves Pyongyang, and intrigue over a power struggle behind. While in London they'll be watched and monitored. Talking about anything but the sports and their hopes for a medal will be strictly off limits.

On Sunday, the country's Army Chief Ri Yong-ho suddenly stepped down 'due to illness.' The official reason has been widely disputed by analysts. He is seen as a high profile loser in a battle for control of the country's future.

A new Vice Marshal has been appointed according to an announcement by the KCNA, the official news agency, today. However, Hyon Yong-chol has not yet been made the new Army Chief, and that will fuel speculation that Kim Jong-un, the country's young leader, is trying to reduce the influence of top military officers.

Our sources tell us that important North Korean business men working in a city on the Chinese border were called back to Pyongyang last night. A sign that something is shifting back in the North Korean capital.

North Korea's former Army Chief, Ri Yong-ho Credit: Reuters

We know little about Hyon Yong-chol, except that he was elected to the Party Central Committee in September 2010 and was part of the funeral committee for Kim Jong-il last December. He is now a winner in the secret struggles which go on inside the murky world of North Korean politics.

This April, in his first public speech, Kim Jong-un repeated the Kim dynasty's support for Songun or 'Military First,' the key policy that gives the armed forces the lion's share of the country's limited resources and funding. The policy came into force when the Soviet Union collapse put an end to subsidies from Moscow.

So could Kim really be shifting the focus of the country from the military to the economy? The signs are there.

North Korea's people are now much more exposed to the outside world thanks to new technology. Smuggled DVDs, TV shows and mobile phones are making it much easier to find out about life beyond the heavily-guarded borders.

Trade with China is up, new cars drive down the once empty avenues of Pyongyang and a million or so now have mobiles. Special Economic Zones are being developed along China's border.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits a kindergarten with a female companion Credit: Reuters

Questions about the political direction, about possible policy changes, are being matched by the intrigue surrounding Kim Jong-un's new female companion.

Is she a famous singer, best known for her top hit roughly translated as "Excellent Horse-Like Lady" or is she a 27-year-old top student who was personally selected by Kim's uncle to be the new leader's wife?

On Sunday, the couple were seen on state TV visiting a kindergarten. The country's First Lady? We simply don't know.

South Korean sources claim she and Kim Jong-un were married in 2009. Yet in the official report about his visit to the nursery, the senior figures who accompanied them are listed but there's no mention of her at all.

Mystery surrounds the winners and losers in North Korea.