South Korean analysts are split on whether the alleged bloody purge signals strength or weakness from Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father’s death in 2011.
Some are not even sure whether Seoul’s occasionally unreliable spy agency got it right. One expert described the reported development, part of a series of high-profile recent purges and executions by Kim, as an attempt to orchestrate a “reign of terror” that would solidify his leadership.
National Intelligence Service officials told a closed-door parliamentary committee meeting that North Korean People’s Armed Forces Minister Hyon Yong Chol was killed in front of hundreds of spectators at a shooting range at Pyongyang’s Kang Kon Military Academy in late April, according to lawmaker Shin Kyoung-min, who attended the briefing.
Kim Gwang-lim, chairman of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee, quoted the spy service as saying Hyon had also failed several times to comply with unspecified instructions by the North Korean leader. The office of another lawmaker, Lee Cheol Woo, released similar information about the NIS briefing.
Also said to be purged was Ma Won Chun, a lieutenant general and prominent architect who reportedly led a “mega-project” to build North Korea’s Masik Pass ski resort.
Ma had frequently accompanied Kim Jong Un on inspection tours, but was last mentioned in state media in November. He was earlier appointed to lead a new “Designing Department” within the National Defence Commission, North Korea’s top governing body.
The South Korean intelligence agency did not tell politicians how it got its information, only that it was from a variety of channels and that it believed it to be true, the South Korean politicians said. The spy agency refused to confirm the report.
After the briefing, Yonhap news agency cited an unidentified senior South Korean intelligence official as saying that Hyon’s execution could not be confirmed yet because North Korea had not made an official announcement.
South Korea’s spy agency has a chequered record of tracking developments in North Korea. Information about the secretive, authoritarian state is often impossible to confirm.
The spy service faced criticism when it failed to predict the North’s artillery strikes on a South Korean island in 2010 because it ignored intercepted North Korean communications indicating a possible attack. The agency saved face in 2013 when it said Kim Jong Un had purged his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, days before Pyongyang announced the former No. 2’s execution for alleged treason.
Unconfirmed media reports have tended to follow past purges in the North. Jang’s execution saw a frenzy of speculation, including reports he was killed by a flame thrower or stripped naked and fed to hungry dogs. In 2012, media outlets followed the North’s announcement army chief Ri Yong Ho had stepped down because of an illness with reports that Ri may have been wounded or killed in a gun fight.
Analyst Cheong Seong-chang at the private Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea questioned the authenticity of the report on Hyon’s execution because the minister still frequently appears in state TV footage.
North Korea typically removes executed and purged officials from TV documentaries, but Hyon appeared multiple times in a TV documentary on live fire drills between 30 April and 11 May, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
North Korea’s main news agency has not mentioned Hyon since a 29 April report of his attendance of a music event the previous day.