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North Korea has executed Minister of the Peoples’ Armed Forces Hyon Yong Chol using an anti-aircraft gun, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) has said.
Hundreds of North Korean officials watched Hyon’s execution on April 30, an NIS deputy director was paraphrased as saying to South Korean lawmakers.
News of the event was publicized by the Yonhap News Agency early on Wednesday morning. Yonhap quoted the NIS as saying he was punished for falling asleep during formal military events.
The alleged development follows rumors of a further execution of up to 15 top officials a little under two weeks ago, ostensibly for challenging Kim Jong Un’s authority.
Hyon was seen dozing off during a military event and did not carry out Kim’s instructions, Han Ki-beom, the deputy director of the NIS told the committee, Yonhap reported.
“If it is true, which is yet to be confirmed, such executions would make other current and future officials and military officers less trusting of one another and of the leadership above them,” said NK News director of intelligence John Grisafi.
“(This) would undermine the chain of command and organizational strength within the North Korean regime.”
Hyon’s execution did not likely happen along with the 15 officials executed earlier this year, Grisafi said.
“The NIS briefed South Korean lawmakers on that by April 29 – indicating it occurred prior to that date – and is now reporting that Hyon was executed on April 30,” he said.
Recently, South Korea’s NIS made a notable intelligence error in telling local lawmakers that there was a high probability Kim Jong Un would be visiting Moscow for Victory Day celebrations last weekend.
Yet a day after the NIS announcement, the Kremlin announced Kim would not be coming, citing “internal reasons” in North Korea for the trip cancellation.
Hyon’s last appearance in Pyongyang’s state media was just one day prior to the alleged execution, on April 29. Prior to that, he typically appeared two to six times per month.
Hyon had been minister of the People’s Armed Forces since last June, when he replaced Jang Jong Nam.
His career had ups and downs. He achieved the rank of vice marshal in 2012 but was demoted to colonel general later that same year for unknown reasons, though he remained in his post of chief of the General Staff.
Executions by firing squad have been rumored to take place using anti-aircraft guns in North Korea for some time.
In early May, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights NGO published what it said was satellite imagery evidence of a probable execution using anti-aircraft guns.
Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University said the reports, if true, would demonstrate that Kim Jong Un is attempting to signal that he is not to be trifled with.
“Because of his age and because of his sudden promotion it is highly likely that most of those around him did not take him seriously, at least initially,” he said. “So he is now sending signals that he is to be feared. Having said that, the fact that he can do it with very little resistance can show in some regard that the situation is stable.”
However, Lankov said he was not “absolutely convinced” that the executions were taking place.
“I am inclined to believe they are taking place but I am not certain,” he said. “I would not overestimate the scale and significance of the executions in this regard.”
Regarding NIS’s track record, Lankov noted past intelligence failures but said “there is no other intelligence service that deals with North Korea and does not have a serious record of getting something wrong.”
Michael Madden of North Korea Leadership Watch also indicated he was inclined to believe the report.
“The NIS wouldn’t publicize something on such a senior official, particularly Hyon Yong Chol, unless it had a high degree of confidence in its sources,” Madden said. “It’s no accident that reports of Hyo’s execution are appearing almost concurrent to DPRK state media reporting on the death of Kim Kyok Sik.”
General Kim Kyok Sik, 77, was recently announced to have died of an unspecified cancer.
Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea took the execution to mean that the leadership situation in the North remains unstable.
“If the Defense Minister was indeed executed for alleged disloyalty displayed through his having fallen asleep in the young leader’s presence, this is clear indication that Kim Jong Un continues to be very insecure,” he said. “The threat of death by ZPU-4 anti-aircraft machine gun is certainly an effective way to keep everyone in line. Nevertheless, given the apparent randomness of reasons why officials are executed, no one is safe.”
Scarlatoiu noted Kim’s recently aborted Russia trip, which at least one report said was due to Russia’s unwillingness to sell S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system batteries to the North. Hyon had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last November.
“If, as reported, the North Korean leader cancelled his visit because of Russia’s refusal to sell North Korea four S-300 SAM launch units, the official most likely to have been blamed for that failure was Hyon,” Scarlatoiu said. “His falling asleep during a meeting may just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for a Kim Jong Un already annoyed by his envoy’s perceived failure.”