One week ago, following news that China had banned coal imports from North Korea in retaliation to Kim Jong Un's latest ballistic missile test, we mused that North Korea's regime appears to be in jeopardy, even though we had no explicit knowledge of tensions inside the top echelons of the country's political system. It now appears that those concerns may have been justified.
According to AP, North Korea executed five senior security officials with anti-aircraft guns because they made false reports that "enraged" leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea's spy agency said Monday. The spy agency told lawmakers that five North Korean officials in the department of recently purged state security chief Kim Won Hong were executed by anti-aircraft guns because of the false reports to Kim, South Korean lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo said. It's not clear what false reports they allegedly made, and the NIS didn't say how it got its information as South Korean spies have a spotty record when reporting about high-level events in its authoritarian neighbor to the north.
North Korea fired Kim Won Hong in January, presumably over corruption, abuse of power and torture committed by his agency, Seoul said earlier this month. The fallen minister had been seen as close to Kim Jong Un. North Korea has not publicly said anything about Kim Won Hong or about the alleged executions in his department. Lee also cited the NIS as saying that Kim Won Hong's dismissal was linked to those false reports, which "enraged" Kim Jong Un when they were discovered.
The comments by South Korea's National Intelligence Service in a private briefing to lawmakers come as Malaysia investigates the poisoning death of Kim's estranged elder half brother, Kim Jong Nam. That investigation is still going on, but South Korea says it believes Kim Jong Un ordered the assassination, which took place Feb. 13 at Kuala Lumpur's airport. According to an earlier report by CNN, Kim Jong-un ordered two North Korean ministries to orchestrate the plot.
"The assassination of Kim Jong Nam was an act of systematic terror ordered by Kim Jong Un," South Korean lawmaker Kim Byung-kee said in a televised address. "The operation was conducted with two assassination groups and one supporting group." Kim Jong-nam was killed earlier this month in a Malaysian airport. Two women were seen on video smearing a substance, identified as VX nerve agent, on his face in the airport.
North Korea has said it was not involved in the murder of Kim Jong-nam and claimed South Korean media is putting out "fake news." That said, since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has reportedly executed or purged a large number of high-level government officials in what rival Seoul has called a "reign of terror."
Furthermore, this isn't the first time Kim has resorted to such a dramatic form of execution: in May 2015, the country used an anti-aircraft gun to execute its defense minister who had been caught napping. That particular execution was witnessed by hundreds of people, and was meant to send a clear signal by the country's ruler. It has been speculated that Kim Jong Un brings out the "heavy artillery", so to speak any time he feels particularly threatened and uses this dramatic method of termination to subdue any perceived growing opposition. Which in light of recent events, would be understandable, and would suggest that the risk of a North Korean coup is substantially higher than some may think.