Recent reports based on comments by an anonymous South Korean official suggest that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might have embarked on a new military purge. General Pyon In-son, the head of operations of the Korean People’s Army and a swift riser through KPA ranks, was reportedly “killed for expressing an opinion different to that of Kim,” according to Bloomberg. The incident will emphasize discipline — i.e. complying with Kim Jong-un’s vision — across the entire KPA establishment.
Kim Jong-un, in general, is suspected to mistrust several senior KPA commanders, many of whom held senior positions during his father’s tenure as supreme leader. In November, Kim purged a senior National Defense Commission official, Ma Won-chun, for corrupt practices and a failure to follow orders. Purges have been an important part of Kim Jong-un’s lengthy power consolidation process. Most famously, in December 2013, Kim purged and executed his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was at the time the effective second-in-command of the regime and its primary interlocutor with China.
Pyon In-son was promoted to four-star rank within the KPA in March 2014 and was subsequently removed from his position in November. As NKNews noted back in June 2014, Pyon succeeded Ri Yong-gil as director of the General Staff Operations Bureau of the KPA. Ri Yong-gil disappeared some time in mid-2014 and is suspected to have been purged as well. According to NK News, “Pyon previously served as commander of the KPA’s IV and VII Corps and in 2013 became a vice minister of the People’s Armed Forces. He is also a member of the party Central Committee and has represented North Korea in military-to-military talks with China.” A detailed summary of Pyon’s career within the KPA is available over at NK Leadership Watch.
Over 50 officials, many affiliated with the KPA, were executed in 2014 as part of Kim Jong-un’s wide-ranging purge. It is unclear if Kim suspects that his authority is being undermined by senior commanders that served his father. Nevertheless, if previous executions hadn’t sent a message to senior members of the KPA, Pyon’s execution should be a reminder that even those who were promoted recently by Kim Jong-un himself aren’t immune to scrutiny.