There was some confusion what caused the fallout between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his defense minister, Hyon Yong Chol. According to Reuters Chol was charged with treason, including disobeying Kim. According to Bloomberg, his offense was more trivial: he fell asleep. The defense minister "was captured napping in video footage of the event late last month."
As a point of reference, the North Korean defense minister is one of the most influential positions in the country, along with the chief of general staff and the head of the military’s political bureau. Hyon had been in the role since June last year.
Whichever one is true is irrelevant, but one thing is certain: nobody will ever be caught napping at official events ever again because while the catalyst that set Jong Un off may be unclear, Chol's fate is now know: he was executed in front of an anti-aircraft gun at a firing range, according to Seoul's National Intelligence Service, the latest in a series of high-level purges since Kim Jong Un took charge.
Reuters adds that his execution was watched by hundreds of people, according to NIS intelligence shared with lawmakers.
It was not clear how the NIS obtained the information and it is not possible to independently verify such reports from within secretive North Korea.
"The NIS official said it had been confirmed by multiple sources. It is still just intelligence, but he said they were confident," Shin Kyoung-min, a lawmaker and member of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, who attended the briefing, told Reuters.
Experts on North Korea said there was no sign of instability in Pyongyang, but there could be if purges continued.
Chol is just the latest casualty in a rising total of "purges" ordered by the young North Korean dictator as he feels his control on power may be slipping: "Kim had previously ordered the execution of 15 senior officials this year as punishment for challenging his authority, according to the NIS. In all, some 70 officials have been executed since Kim took over after his father's death in 2011, Yonhap news agency cited the NIS as saying."
The list of those purged his uncle and one-time deputy, Jang Song Thaek. In January, he executed General Pyon In Son, head of operations in the army, for disagreeing with him. He also executed about 50 officials last year on charges ranging from graft to watching South Korean soap operas.
It is unclear whether a purge of Kim himself could follow, and whether he would be replaced with an even more hard core leader.
"There is no clear or present danger to Kim Jong Un's leadership or regime stability, but if this continues to happen into next year, then we should seriously start to think about revising our scenarios on North Korea," said Michael Madden, an expert on the country's leadership who contributes to the 38 North think tank in Washington.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the regime could "reach its limit" if Kim's purges continued. "But it's still too early to tell," said Koh.
Bloomberg cites Oh Gyeong Seob, a North Korea researcher at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, who adds that “The purge shows the extreme steps he has to take to have a complete grip on power,” said by phone. “This may hurt the stability of his regime down the line” because the top brass in North Korea may feel threatened by Kim’s brutality, Oh said.
But back to Hyon, and his capital offense: terminal napping.
Hyon was said to have shown disrespect to Kim by dozing off at a military event, the Seoul lawmakers said, citing the agency briefing. Hyon was also believed to have voiced complaints against Kim and had not followed his orders several times, according to the lawmakers.
He was arrested in late April and executed three days later without legal proceedings, the NIS told lawmakers.
All things considered, it could have been worse: Hyon could have merely had a visit from a lethal drone operated out of Nevada, and disappeared in an unsourced explosion, with the same effect.
At least North Korea has the courage to own up to its political executions.