Tracking Hyon’s fate
The Korea Journalist Award is our most prestigious press award, similar to the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S. In 1967, Kim Jip of TBC won the first award for covering Lee Su-geun’s defection through Panmunjom. Kim Jib was drunk and asleep in a bathroom the night before and missed a bus to Seoul. He was woken by gunfire as North Korea’s Central News Agency vice president Lee Su-geun defected to the South under fire of North Korean guards. Kim Jib reported live from the scene.
Other scoops like the torture and death of Park Jong-cheol (1987) won the award.
In 1995, the Korea Journalist Award Grand Prize was established. It is not awarded every year. It honors only scoops that surprised the world. Honorees include the journalists who reported the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, the secret Beijing meeting between Kim Jong-il and Jiang Zemin in 2000 and the manipulation of public opinion by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) during the 2012 presidential election.
The most complicated story was Yonhap News’ 2010 coverage of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son and chosen successor. The story took nine years to investigate. The reporter, Choi Seon-yeong, is a North Korean defector who sought asylum in Zambia with her husband and third secretary Hyeon Seong-il in 1996. The story, submitted in January 2009, took two more years to win the award while the information was verified.
The scoop was painful to the NIS. They even harbored suspicions about Choi because of her connections with the North.
In 2009, a North Korean defectors’ online post reported currency reforms in North Korea before the NIS. Having been embarrassed repeatedly, the NIS changed their procedures.
Nowadays, they report to the president any North Korean “intelligence,” and once it becomes “information,” they make it public immediately.
A notable case was the purge of Jang Song-thaek in 2013. When the NIS detected that Jang’s close aides were executed and his safety was unaccounted for, they reported “Signs of Jang losing power” to the National Assembly’s intelligence committee on December 3.
Nine days later, Jang was executed.
On May 13, the NIS revealed that Vice Marshal Hyon Yong-chol was executed, possibly for falling asleep at a meeting with Kim Jong-un. North Korea criticized the report as a “foul-smelling curse” and some foreign media raised suspicions that Hyon was still appearing on North Korean television. Progressive online media in Korea also suspect the NIS of a plot of some kind.
So I asked a number of high-ranking NIS officials. This Q&A incorporates comments from several sources.
Q. Are you sure that Hyon was executed?
A. It is 99% true. If he is not purged, the NIS should shut down.
How did the NIS know?
Signs were detected immediately after the execution on April 30. As purges continue, the Ganggeon Military Academy’s shooting range is a target of interest for Korea’s TECHINT, or technical intelligence using satellite images.
The satellite photo released to the media is blurry.
It is a low-resolution commercial satellite image and the NIS has far more precise images, which allow us to analyze the extent and method of execution.
Wouldn’t it be hard to identify Hyon Yong-chol?
Of course, the face of the executed person cannot be identified from the satellite images. But Hyon’s execution was cross-verified through HUMINT, human intelligence, and SIGNIT, signal intelligence.”
Why was the news made public on May 13?
There were rumors of a purge for days, and we decided to release it before Korean and foreign media reported it. We also needed to control confusion in North Korean intelligence, as CNN reported rumors of Kim Kyung-hee’s fate the day before, which we denied.
Hyon continues to appear in North Korean broadcasts.
That is not uncommon. Jang Song-thaek was an exceptional case with his appearances removed immediately after his purging. Lately, Hyon has made no public military appearances. We are in the process of analyzing the intention of North Korea for not immediately removing traces of him from reports.
When I asked whether the president ordered the information on Hyon released, the intelligence sources I met said they were not in a position to answer.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 19, Page 34
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho