The latest claims of high-level officials being executed inside North Korea add to a list of bloody purges attributed to Kim Jong-un, but also follow reports of killings that never happened.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that former agriculture minister Hwang Min and Ri Yong-jin, a senior education official, were publicly executed in early August for insubordination. The reported method of death was anti-aircraft fire.
In keeping with the usual pattern of unverifiable reports about the regime from South Korean media and intelligence services, the newspaper cited a single anonymous source for its claim.
Muddying the waters further, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification announced on Wednesday that a vice premier responsible for education, Kim Yong-jin, had been executed by the regime. It was initially unclear if the ministry’s announcement referred to the similarly-named person referred to in the media as Ri, or someone else.
Update: On Thursday, the JoongAng Ilbo reported that the ministry’s statement, pegging Kim as the only victim of the latest execution, had been made as a correction of its earlier reporting, which was erroneous.
If true, the latest purge would coincide with the shock defection of U.K. deputy ambassador Thae Yong-ho, who vanished from his post in July before reappearing in South Korea earlier this month.
Reports of high-level executions inside North Korea, however, have a shaky relationship with the truth.
The most infamous confirmed purge saw Kim dispatch with his uncle Jang Song-thaek in a rare example of the state’s propaganda media confirming a high-profile execution.
But in May, Ri Yong-gil, a former army chief of staff, appeared at the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea months after South Korean media reported his execution. The revelation came as an embarrassing blow to the image of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the assumed source of the information, which less than a year previously misreported the execution of senior official Han Kwang-san.
Michael Madden, the founder of NK Leadership Watch, told The Diplomat that the latest claims were “suspect,” pointing to clear factual errors in the original report.
“The JoongAng report actually misidentifies Hwang Min as being replaced in June at the Supreme People’s Assembly as agriculture minister,” Madden said. “Hwang was replaced back in 2014 by Ri Chol-man and demoted to the vice minister position. It was Ri Chol-man who was replaced in June because he migrated over to the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee as a department director. That’s just basic fact checking — but if one is creating a narrative, then perhaps make it look like Hwang was dismissed in June to correlate to his execution.”
Madden also poured doubt on the explanation provided for the supposed purge: Ri’s initial crime was reportedly dozing off before the great leader.
“It is time we nail the coffin closed on this rationale that DPRK officials get shot because they doze off at meetings,” Madden said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name.
“It feeds a misleading behavioral profile on Kim Jong-un and is intended to incite murmurs of instability. In perhaps trying to frame a media narrative that things are unstable in Pyongyang, given the recent diplomat’s defection, people are going to the well one too many times.”