Kim executed defense chief: NIS

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Kim executed defense chief: NIS

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Hyon Yong-chol (circled), minister of North Korea’s People’s Armed Forces, appears to have his eyes closed during an event for military officials presided over by Kim Jong-un (center), held on April 24 and 25, in a photo published by the North Korean daily Rodong Sinmun on April 26. South Korea’s spy agency reported Wednesday that Hyon was executed after possibly being accused of having dozed off late last month. [Rodong Sinmun]

North Korea executed its defense chief late last month, South Korea’s spy agency reported Wednesday, the latest chapter in leader Kim Jong-un’s reign of terror.

A firing squad executed the defense minister with an antiaircraft gun, the agency said.

Four-star Gen. Hyon Yong-chol, minister of North Korea’s People’s Armed Forces, was executed around April 30 at a military academy in Pyongyang with hundreds of senior military officials watching, said the National Intelligence Service (NIS), citing multiple sources but refusing to disclose them in detail.

The spy agency said Hyon could have been charged with treason but it was likely that he was executed because he showed some sign of disrespect to leader Kim Jong-un rather than plotting a rebellion.

The NIS said Hyon had expressed dissatisfaction with Kim Jong-un’s governing style, without elaborating further. The agency said Hyon dozing off at a military event held on April 24 and 25 in Pyongyang might have sealed his fate.

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Hyon Yong-chol

In a photo published by the state-run daily Rodong Sinmun on April 26, Hyon appeared to have his eyes closed during an event for military officials presided over by Kim Jong-un, who was seated in the center in the front row. Hyon was seated to Kim’s left.

According to an intelligence official who asked for anonymity, Kim is sensitive about subordinates falling asleep in his meetings and has given repeated warnings against it, even for meetings that stretch on for hours.

The official said senior figures have been demoted or purged after they were caught dozing off.

The North has not announced anything about Hyon’s fate. The general was seen accompanying Kim on an inspection of an air force unit in March on a program aired by the North’s Korean Central Television earlier this month.

It takes time to edit out purged or executed officials from television footage, so that is not considered a sign that he was alive at the time of the airing.

Hyon was the second most powerful military man in North Korea after Hwang Pyong-so, director of the General Bureau of the North Korean Army.

His killing bolsters the theory that Kim is maintaining his grip over the elite in Pyongyang through purges and killings.

Hong’s execution seems unusual because no legal proceedings were announced, although they would have been tightly choreographed anyway. It appears that it took only two to three days for him to be executed after his arrest, the NIS said.

Hyon’s execution differs from that of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of Kim Jong-un, who was executed right after a military trial on Dec. 12, 2013.

Jang was found guilty of numerous charges, including a plot to revolt against the state, four days after his dismissal from all of his powerful positions.

Given Hyon’s fate, the Pyongyang regime appears to be accelerating its reign of terror to warn senior party and military officials dissatisfied with the direction of the country from challenging Kim Jong-un.

It was a dramatic fall for the 66-year-old Hyon, a graduate of the elite Kim Il Sung Military University, who less than a month ago visited Moscow on behalf of Kim and met with his Russian counterpart. Hyon was appointed chief of the North Korean Army last June following a stint as commander of the North Korean Army’s 5th Corps.

Hyon’s towering stature was proven by the number of times he accompanied Kim Jong-un to public events this year, which was 14. According to the NIS, only three other people were seen more often with Kim.

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A satellite photo released by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea on Wednesday appears to show a firing-squad execution near Pyongyang last October. [NEWSIS] Inset: The type of antiaircraft gun believed by the NIS to have been used to execute Hyon Yong-chol.[JoongAng Photo]

Hong’s execution follows the killings of around 70 senior party and military officials since the young leader took the helm of the Communist country upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.

Starting with executions of three officials in 2012, the figure jumped to 30 in 2013 and the same number the following year. This year alone, the Stalinist state has executed eight officials, including Hyon.

The 70-some figure over a four-year-period is a dramatic increase from the number in the first four years of the reign of Kim Jong-il, which was around 10.

“We have gained intelligence that officials in Pyongyang are always tense because their every move is being monitored under Kim Jong-un’s monolithic rule. At the same time, we have detected signs that they privately complain [about the situation of the country] to people they trust,” said the intelligence official.

The spy agency said there is a growing hesitancy among officials to take powerful positions due to widespread fear they could also be executed for trivial reasons.

“The execution of Hyon could be seen as a model of how Kim demands the utter loyalty of military officials,” said Koh Yu-han, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University.

It was also possible that Hyon was executed for making an official complaint to Kim on behalf of senior military officials, many of whom have been affected by a series of promotions and demotions over the past three years, Koh said.

The execution could be proof that Kim “has a firm grip on the military,” said Koh. “But Kim knows it can’t be repeated forever.”

Over the past six months, Kim has punished other key officials including Ma Won-chun, director of the Designing Department at the powerful National Defense Commission.

The NIS said Ma has been forced to work on a farm in Yanggang Province with his family after Kim complained about the renovation of the Sunan International Airport last November, saying it lacked “Juche Ideology,” or North Korean identity.

“As Kim Jong-un’s distrust of members of his core policy group has worsened, the level of the reign of terror has also been heightened,” said the NIS.

As for a report by U.S. cable channel CNN on Monday that Kim had poisoned his aunt Kim Kyong-hui to death last May, citing an unnamed North Korean defector with an alleged background in a senior party position in an interview, the NIS refuted the report, calling it “groundless.”

Kim Kyong-hui was the sister of former leader Kim Jong-il and wife of the executed uncle Jang Song-taek.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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