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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korea on Wednesday said North Korea purged a vice-premier responsible for education and was in the process of re-educating two other high profile officials.
Kim Yong Jin, 63-year-old vice-premier of the North’s Cabinet, was executed, said the South’s Ministry of Unification (MoU) during a regular news briefing on Wednesday.
The announcement came one day after South Korean media outlet the JoongAng Ilbo reported the execution of two different officials: Hwang Min, the vice-minister of agriculture and Ri Yong Jin, a senior education ministry official.
Kim last appeared in state media on June 17, having attended a June 15 celebration event related to the International Taekwon-Do Federation at the People’s Palace of Culture, the Pyongyang Times reported.
The MoU also said Kim Yong Chol, a director of the United Front Department in charge of North-South relations, was also currently undergoing ideological education called ‘revolutionary measures.’
Kim Yong Chol also served as a vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and used to be a director of the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), which has previously been accused of involvement in cyber-attacks.
Choe Hwi, first vice department director of the Central Committee of the WPK, was also said to have been sent for political re-education,
But while the MoU said the developments had been confirmed through several channels, it declined to give further details.
However, further details of the purge emerged following the news, issued by a government ministry that insisted on anonymity for unknown reasons.
Talking on a non-attributable basis, the ministry told NK News that Kim Yong Jin was executed by firing squad in July because his seated posture had been bad at a meeting of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), held on June 29. NK News was not able to confirm the rumor.
South Korea’s intelligence services and MoU have a checkered record when it comes to announcing purges and executions of North Korean officials.
Most recently, Gen. Ri Yong Gil, who South Korea’s spy service said categorically had been executed earlier this year, appeared alive and well in May’s congress event in Pyongyang
One South Korea-based observer said that internal and external problems likely caused the execution, but dismissed South Korean government rumors about Kim’s seated posture being to blame.
“There is a desperate cash crunch (in the wake of March’s UN Security Council resolution), which led to many problems,” Kang Cheol-hwan, executive director of the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) told NK News.
In this context, “the head of a department has to take responsibility if he or she failed to fully implement the national tasks due to a dearth of funds.
“It’s not proper to say that poor posture led to death…There is definitely another perspective,” he continued.
“Kim Yong Jin (possibly) sought influence and carried the cabinet’s projects at his will, not following Kim Jong Un’s instructions.”
Another local leadership watcher said the case suggested Kim Jong Un’s young age may be an issue.
“If the execution of the vice-premier is real, it seems that Kim Jong Un still relies on drastic measures like purges because of a hangup about his young age,” Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute told NK News.
The North’s deepening isolation amid growing international sanctions may have heightened the level of punishment being meted out by Kim, too.
“Since the North’s relations with the international community and the South have become strained, the North excessively punishes even a little fault of the senior officials and induces them to pledge blind allegiance to the regime,” Cheong said. “If foreign relations improve and stabilize, the level of dependence (on execution) will get relatively lower.”
Cheong said, however, that Kim Jong Un’s pattern of purges was “restrained and selective” compared to the past, referring to the massive and bloody purges rumored to have taken place in 1997, during the Kim Jong Il era.
“Executions were carried out extensively (in the past). However, it took a long time to figure out who had been executed due to a lack of intelligence capabilities,” Cheong said.
Main picture: NK News / Eric Lafforgue