Yet another North Korean general is killed by the Pyongyang regime.
That’s the story that’s been doing the rounds this week after a South Korean news agency quoted an anonymous South Korean official from an unnamed South Korean agency as saying that Ri Yong Gil, chief of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] general staff, had been executed for corruption.
It fit with the pattern that has emerged since Kim Jong Un took over the leadership of North Korea from his father at the end of 2011: Aging member of the old guard dispatched by young upstart leader.
After all, it happened with Hyon Yong Chol, the defense minister executed by anti-aircraft gun for insubordination and treason. And to Pyon In Son, head of operations in the army, said to have disagreed with Kim. The 33-year-old leader even had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, shot for amassing too much power.
This rumor about Ri may well be true. But as with almost everything related to North Korea, very little is clear.
A memo from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, obtained by the Washington Post, said that Ri was executed on Feb. 2 or 3 for factionalism and corruption charges.
“Even though corruption and factionalism were given as reasons behind his execution, Ri had been considered a man on principle so it is more likely that these reasons were just given to justify his execution,” the memo said. “This is another sign of Kim Jong Un’s reign of terror,” it said.
But the South’s spy agency has a history of being wrong about North Korea almost as often as it’s right, and the Daily NK, a Seoul-based news service with informants inside Norh Korea, Friday reported that Ri had been arrested rather than executed.
Ri was “going against the Party’s monolithic teachings and monolithic military system” by “exercising privileges and partaking in factional bureaucracy,” a source told The Daily NK. He was arrested at a party meeting and dragged out in handcuffs, the site reported.
There is also recent precedent for top officials being given a time-out: Choe Ryong Hae, Secretary of the Korean Workers' Party, went missing for three months last year, reportedly because of corruption, then returned to the public eye last month. North Korea’s state media reported he gave a speech at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League in Pyongyang.
There were also rumors in South Korea that Hwang Pyong So, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean Peoples’ Army, had been knocked off at the end of last year after three weeks passed without him putting in an appearance. Then he showed up next to Kim during a trip to a tree nursery operated by the army (yes, in North Korea trees are a military issue.)
Further obscuring the truth about Ri, the elderly general had appeared on state television in recent days, alongside Kim Jong Un, an unlikely occurrence if Ri had in fact been executed. Those who’ve been put to death are usually edited out of official news broadcasts.
Ri, who has (or had) held a number of top military positions, was ranked number 76 on the national funeral committee formed after Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, according to Michael Madden’s biographical notes on his Web site, North Korea Leadership Watch.
In 2012, Ri delivered a speech at a Korean People’s Army rally commemorating the one-year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, and the following year accompanied Kim Jong Un on several field inspections.
He was appointed Chief of the General Staff in August 2013, according to Madden. But he did not appear during footage broadcast this week of Kim celebrating North Korea’s latest long-range rocket launch.
What is clear is that the Pyongyang regime is in a state of upheaval ahead of the Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, scheduled for May.
It would be the first time such a shin-dig has been held in 36 years, and many of Kim’s recent moves – including the nuclear test and rocket launch – are considered preparation for the Congress.
“The head of the party congress is going through the files of everybody in senior positions in the government, military or party very closely,” Madden said. “This is where someone like Ri Yong Gil could possibly get in trouble. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen a lot of secondary personnel changes too.”
What that means is that there is plenty more change in and brinksmanship from North Korea over the next three months, Madden said.
So fasten that seatbelt.