Even for grizzled experts well steeped in the brutal and often bizarre ways of the North Korean regime, the method of execution employed for the secretive nation’s late military chief seems extreme.
Defense Minister Hyon Yong Choi reportedly was killed by anti-aircraft artillery fire about two weeks ago, for reasons ranging from him having dozed off at a high-level meeting to having blown a crucial arms deal with Russia, depending on various reports filtering from North Korea.
“This is clearly a form of intimidation bordering on pure cruelty,” Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, told McClatchy.
Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that he had no independent confirmation of how the minister was executed.
“The reporting that we’ve seen in the press appeared gruesome,” Warren told reporters, quipping, “Don’t fall asleep during the ceremony.”
According to reports citing South Korea’s spy agency, Hyon was killed by anti-aircraft gunfire at a military school in front of hundreds of people in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
South Korea lawmakers who’d received a closed-door briefing by the South Korea Intelligence Agency said Hyon reportedly had failed several times to follow orders from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and was seen nodding off at a meeting convened by him.
Charles Armstrong, director of Columbia University’s Center for Korean Research, said there may have been another reason for Hyon’s macabre execution.
Armstrong said he’d heard that the execution was tied to Kim’s abrupt cancellation late last month of his plans to go to Moscow for Russia’s Victory Day celebration May 9 to mark the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender in Berlin to Soviet military commanders.
“There is some speculation that the reason Kim didn’t go to Russia was because Russia didn’t sell North Korea surface-to-air missiles they want, and Hyon Yong Choi was in charge of that deal, so he was blamed for its failure, and therefore he was killed,” Armstrong said in an interview.
Executing Hyon, Armstrong said, was in some ways more bizarre than Kim’s infamous directive in December 2013 to kill his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for allegedly having planned to overthrow him. The official North Korea news agency KCNA confirmed that decision, calling Jang “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog.”
Jang was viewed as part of the old guard from which Kim wanted to separate himself, Armstrong said, while Hyon was regarded as a younger leader whom Kim trusted.
Whatever the reason for Hyon’s demise, the manner of execution stunned even experts who follow North Korea closely.
The overkill, they said, was clearly intended to deliver a message.
“Assuming that it’s true, this is quite a remarkable turn of events.” Armstrong said. “It seems to suggest that they wanted to really obliterate him – not just to kill him, but to get rid of all traces of him. There is a certain psychological intent to that. It shows a vehemence, a ruthlessness, a kind of cruelty.”
The defense minister’s execution adds to the curious chronicles of Kim, who became North Korea’s supreme leader at age 28 in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
In addition to having his uncle killed two years into his rule, Kim became a recent object of ridicule in his alleged response to “The Interview,” a farcical movie about a plot to assassinate him.
President Barack Obama in January imposed new economic sanctions on North Korea for having hacked into the computer systems of Sony Pictures, which made “The Interview.”
North Korea denied having launched the cyberattack, but an investigation led by retired Brig. Gen. Gregory Touhill, assistant secretary for cybersecurity with the Homeland Security Department, found that Pyongyang had used “a sophisticated worm to conduct cyberexploitation activities” at Sony Pictures. The FBI also blamed North Korea.
The cyberattack caused Sony to delay release of “The Interview” from October to December.
North Korea, in turn, accused the U.S. government of being behind the film. It threatened to attack American “citadels” if the movie was released.
Scott Snyder, director of U.S.-Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Hyon’s death might not have been the first execution by anti-aircraft fire in North Korea.
Snyder said the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington-based advocacy group, recently reported that satellite imagery had shown a public execution by such means of an unknown figure in October.
Snyder expressed concern that Kim has become such a ridiculed character in the United States that Americans fail to realize how dangerous he is.
“What I worry about is that the bizarreness of it all overshadows the deadly seriousness,” Snyder told McClatchy. “This is an aspiring nuclear state and probably the world’s worst violator of human rights. The danger is that the comedic aspect of stories coming out of North Korea overshadows the magnitude of the problems and the intractably of the problems.
“Kim Jong Un is now a figure in American pop culture as the prototype of a crazy dictator,” he said. “But in addition to being a movie character, he’s real, and it’s important for Americans to recognize that there is a gruesome reality about North Korea.”