What Happened to North Korea's Defense Minister?


South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) recently told local lawmakers that North Korea executed its defense chief, Hyon Yong-chol, in late April. Hyon was executed by anti-aircraft fire in front of other high-level North Korean officials, NIS said, according to the legislators. Hyon was charged with treason, including being disrespectful to top leader Kim Jong-un and falling asleep during an event in which Kim participated.

However, some South Korean analysts question authenticity of the report. As evidence against the story, they point out that Hyon can still be seen in material from North Korean media outlets. In North Korea, it  is highly unusual for officials to still appear in government propaganda after being removed from power.

Jeong Sung-jang, a senior researcher at Sejong Institute, said in an email sent out to reporters that in other cases of high-level purges in North Korea, such as the ousters of Jang Song-thaek and Ri Yong-ho, the former officials’ names and photos were removed from state media within a week. If Hyon had truly been purged, analysts would expect the same thing to have happened to Hyon. Jeong noted, however, that Hyon appeared on North Korean TV between May 5 and 12. Hyon’s name also can be found in North Korea’s state newspapers.

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An official from South Korea Ministry of Unification suggested that more analysis should be done on why Hyon is still appearing in TV footage. On condition of anonymity, the official told reporters that there have been cases in which purged North Korean officials have appeared in state media in the past. In fact, Byun In-sun, another high-level North Korean military official, was assumed to have been executed in November 2014, but he appeared on North Korean TV on April 30 of this year.

Amid the confusion, one notable North Korean defector in Seoul claimed that the execution of Hyon seems to have happened, and that the incident was closely related to Kim’s lack of control over his regime.

Kim Seong-min, founder of Free North Korea Radio (FNKR) and a North Korean defector himself, said on May 14 that he believes Hyon is dead. According to Kim, Hyon’s execution shows how cruel Kim Jong-un can be and also demonstrates that Kim lacks control over North Korea.

“This is a perfect opportunity for Pyongyang to condemn and humiliate South Korea by telling the world Hyon is alive if NIS’s announcement was wrong,” said Kim. “But the fact that North Korea hasn’t reacted to NIS’s report shows that Hyon is dead and that the purge happened urgently without a proper process.”

It has been two days since reports of Hyon’s execution came out, and arguments continue over the veracity of the claim. If it’s confirmed, Hyon would be only the latest of a number of high-profile public executions by Kim Jong-un, including the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek two years ago. That spate of executions and purges could mean that North Korea is going through a dramatic change within its regime.

If the report turns out to be false, however, NIS will likely see its reputation damaged. Getting such a major story wrong would call into question NIS’s ability to gather classified information regarding North Korea.  The agency has already clarified its statement, saying it believes Hyon has been purged but that reports of his execution are “yet to be verified.”

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