14 May 2015

What has happened to North Korea’s elite?

The downfall of the defence minister fuels international concern about the stability of North Korea under Kim Jong-un, as he apparently continues a ruthless purge of his father’s top cronies.

The fall of the defence minister has led to fears among analysts of North Korea that a new period of instability in the region may follow as Kim Jong-un, and his closest advisors, become an increasingly unknown quantity.

Reports that the former minister Hyon Yong-chol was executed by an anti-aircraft gun were downplayed on Thursday by South Korea’s spy agency, but it was made clear that he had been shunted aside.

Most information that comes out of North Korea cannot be immediately confirmed.

Western governments and media has long had to rely on senior officer’s appearences in state media and in official documents, in order to confirm who holds power in the country.

But it appears that most of the key men during the rule of Kim Jong-il have now been killed or sidelined.

Hyon Yong-chol – Executed by anti-aircraft gun? 30 April 2015

The defense minister’s execution allegedly occurred due to him falling asleep during a military event. Little was known about the man, except that he had been a general since 2010. He was regularly seen in the state media.

Kim Chol – Executed by ‘mortar fire’ in 2010

A vice minister in the army of North Korea, he was executed for the crimes of “drinking and carousing”. In echoes of the execution by firing squad, he is said to have been killed by mortar bombardment.

But Foreign Policy magazine has pointed out that deaths of elite people in North Korea are regularly exaggerated.

Pak Nam-gi – Executed in a purge in 2010

Director of Planning and Finance under Kim Jong-il and accused of being “a son of a bourgeois conspiring to infiltrate the ranks of revolutionaries to destroy the national economy” by the state. He was executed after taking the blame for the devaluation of the North Korean currency.

Mun Kyong-jin – Killed by firing squad in 2013

Head of the prominent Unhasu orchestra who performed around the world. He was arrested and executed for allegedly violating laws against pornography.

The “Gang of Seven” pallbearers who marched alongside Kim Jong-un’s coffin

Jang Song-thaek – Executed by firing squad in 2013

Uncle to Kim Jong-un, he marched behind the new leader in the funeral procession. He was the vice chairman National Defence Commission and is reported to have survived two purges. He was apparently married to Kim Jong-il’s sister, promoted after Kim Jong-il’s death, but was abruptly accused of being counter-revolutionary “scum … worse than a dog”.

He has digitally removed from photographs and executed in December 2013, reportedly by a flamethrower or machine-gun. Rumours he was killed by being fed to 120 dogs was denied. Dennis Rodman, an NBA star who visited North Korea, disputes this, claiming that he saw him in 2014.

Ri Yong-ho – Killed in firefight in 2013 – or still under house arrest

An army chief of staff who led the funeral parade alongside Kim Jong-un. He is thought to be Kim Jong-un’s military tutor. Relieved of his duties in 2012, reports at the time indicate his guards fought back against efforts to arrest him, which may have led to his death.

Kim Yong-chun – Demoted to a junior position

Ranked five in the funeral committee of Kim Jong-il, indicating he was among the most powerful in the country. A close aide to Kim Jong-il and one of the most powerful men underneath Kim Jong-un until his demotion to manage the military reserves.

Kim Jong-gak – Demoted in 2013 to run a military academy

Part of the Army’s General Political Bureau. During the memorial service to Kim Jong-il he pledged allegiance to the armed forces to Kim Jong-un.

Kim Ki-nam – Stepped down from his role as propaganda chief in April 2015

He is a party secretary and civilian who lead the state propaganda apparatus. He is one of two civilians who accompanied the coffin of Kim Jong-il and is reported to have been one of Kim Jong-il’s most favoured drinking partners.

General U Dong-guk – Status unknown

Part of the State Security Department, running the regime’s formidable spying and intelligence agency, used to repress the country’s citizens. It’s unclear what current role he holds in the regime.

Choe Tae-bok – Still in the job

A civilian aged 85 who has managed to remain as chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly and was recently pictured at soccer game alongside leader Kim Jong-un. A teacher of Kim Jong-il and not a military man. Visited London in 2011.