13 May 15. North Korea’s minister of the Peoples’ Armed Forces, Hyon Yong Chol, was publicly executed on April 30, according to reporting by South Korean press on a brief by National Intelligence Service (NIS) officials to members of the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly yesterday on May 12.
Q1: What happened?
A1: According to accounts from two National Assembly members (Lee Cheol-woo and Shin Kyoung-min) who attended the closed-door meeting, Hyon was reportedly punished for his show of disrespect and disloyalty to Kim Jong-un on charges of being a traitor. Hyon allegedly incurred Kim’s displeasure when he fell asleep during military events with him and even talked back to him. The execution by an antiaircraft gun took place on April 30 in Pyongyang and was watched by hundreds of North Korean officials as a public example. Prior to his death, Hyon had ranked second within the military, behind only Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, the number two figure in Pyongyang. Although North Korea has yet to officially acknowledge Hyon’s execution, he has not been seen in state media since late April.
Q2: What else do we know?
A2: Additional press reports indicate that the NIS also said several other top North Korean officials have been removed from their positions, including Ma Won Chun, director of the National Defense Commission Designing Department, and Han Kwang Sang, director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Finance and Accounting Department, for falling to fulfill Kim’s expectations.
News of Hyon’s reported execution follows a similar briefing by NIS officials on April 29, as reported by the press, which revealed that Kim Jong-un had ordered the execution of 15 high-ranking officials in 2015, including a vice minister of forestry, a vice minister of economic planning, and four members of the Unhasu Orchestra for various offences of complaining about his policies, objecting to his decisions, and espionage.
Q3: What does this mean?
A3: The brutal and spectacular nature of these executions could signal one of two things: either Kim Jong-un enjoys making public examples of his strength through the inhumane disposal of some of the ruling elite; or the brash young leader is struggling to maintain his place amid a growing number of rather high-level dissenters. It is impossible to tell given the lack of information, but I grow increasingly worried that this reflects greater internal instability, rather than strength.
Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Andy Lim, research assistant with the CSIS Korea Chair, provided research assistance.
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