North Korea publicly executes defense minister, says S. Korean intelligence

North Korean defense minister Hyon Yong-chol was killed in front of hundreds of spectators for a variety of offenses, according to South Korea's spy agency. He was the fourth defense minister in 2-1/2 years.

Lee-Jin-man/AP
A man watches a TV news program reporting that North Korean People's Armed Forces Minister Hyon Yong-chol was killed by anti-aircraft gunfire, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday.

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North Korea’s defense minister was reportedly executed for disloyalty and showing disrespect to leader Kim Jong-un, according to South Korea’s intelligence agency. The move underscores the young ruler’s drive to consolidate power, analysts say, but could also be a sign of instability in Pyongyang.

The People's Armed Forces Minister Hyon Yong-chol was killed in front of hundreds of spectators at a shooting range on the Kanggon Military Training Area in late April, according to reports from a South Korean National Intelligence Service briefing. Intelligence reports on North Korea’s activities always have to be treated with a degree of skepticism due to the nation’s secretive and closed-off nature. A recent report from the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, however, stated that satellite imagery of the area, just outside Pyongyang, appeared to corroborate the account.

Military leadership has been in flux since Mr. Kim rose to power in 2011 after his father’s death. Mr. Hyon was the fourth person to hold the defense portfolio in 2-1/2 years, according to The Wall Street Journal. During the two-decade tenure of Kim Jong-il, Kim’s father, the military chief changed only three times.

Experts suggest the reshuffling could reflect Kim’s increasing demands on officials who are strapped for resources and come up short.

“The common assumption is that it’s bad for stability, but I’m not so sure,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, told Reuters. Instead, the motivation may be to encourage loyalty from others.

But such changes in leadership have not been confined to military chiefs – nor have high-profile executions. Kim has changed the director of military operations, a position that controls conventional military forces, six times since coming to power. He allegedly executed his uncle in 2013 for treason, and last month, South Korean intelligence reported that 15 senior North Korean officials accused of challenging Kim’s authority were also executed, reports the Associated Press.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Kim appears to be using purges to check the military old guard, which may pose the only plausible threat to his rule. Koh said Kim could be pushing a "reign of terror" to solidify his leadership, but those efforts would fail if he doesn't improve the country's shattered economy.

“This is indicative of Kim Jong-un's impulsive decision-making and a sign that he is not feeling secure…. Ultimately, this is not the sign of a man confident in his job,” Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership and contributor to the 38 North Think Tank, told the BBC.

If Kim’s purges continue, the regime could “reach its limit,” Mr. Koh told Reuters. "But it's still too early to tell." 

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