North’s defense chief misread signs

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North’s defense chief misread signs

North Korea’s brutal execution of four-star General Hyon Yong-chol, its defense chief, has raised a red flag in relations between Pyongyang and Moscow.

The minister of the People’s Armed Forces was executed around April 30 at a military academy in Pyongyang with hundreds of senior military officials watching, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said Wednesday. Over recent months, he had been in charge of overseeing Pyongyang’s cooperative projects with Moscow.

A firing squad executed Hyon with an antiaircraft gun, the latest chapter in Kim Jong-un’s reign of terror, while speculations mounted in the South that the general was purged, not because he was plotting rebellion, but because he had somehow disrespected the Communist state’s young leader.

North Korea experts said Hyon’s execution could throw cold water on relations between North Korea and Russia, primarily because he had been handling Russian affairs for Pyongyang.

Hyon visited Russia in November last year and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last month, he also gave a 15-minute speech at the Moscow Conference on International Security and met with Russia’s defense minister.

“Since Hyon was someone who had even met with Putin, Moscow must have been offended by Kim’s decision to execute him,” a North Korea expert told the JoongAng Ilbo on Thursday.

Dennis Halpin, former adviser on issues in Asia to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Radio Free Asia on Wednesday that Russia should think twice about warming to the North.

Kim had earlier promised to visit Moscow to attend the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, but canceled his trip at the last minute, Halpin said. He also executed a top military official shortly after that official had returned from a trip to Russia.

Halpin also likened Hyon’s execution to that of Kim’s powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Bilateral ties between Moscow and Pyongyang could worsen in the same way that Jang’s execution defined the downturn in relations with China, he said.

A source informed about North Korean affairs told the JoongAng Ilbo that Hyon appeared to have been executed because he failed to read Kim’s true intentions while planning for the leader’s visit to Moscow.

Pyongyang asked Moscow to publicly endorse it as a nuclear power, the source said, a request that Moscow has rejected. During that course, Kim also abruptly changed his mind about attending the Victory Day event and decided to cancel his trip to Russia.

Hyon, however, apparently failed to read his intentions and went ahead with the planning anyway, which angered the young North Korean ruler.

“Various diplomatic channels at home and abroad confirmed that the purpose of Hyon’s visit to Moscow in April was to arrange Kim’s trip to Russia,” the source said. “Hyon lost Kim’s confidence by pushing for the trip even after Kim had decided not to go.”

BY CHUN SU-JIN [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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