By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS
The head of the North Korean Armed Forces was publicly executed by a firing squad using antiaircraft fire, according to a briefing by South Korean intelligence officials. Representatives from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told reporters in Seoul last week that the execution took place on April 30 in the courtyard of a military academy in North Korean capital Pyongyang.
If the report is accurate, it would mean that Hyon Yong Chol, who led the country’s People’s Armed Forces, is no more. Hyon was considered a trusted advisor to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, who appointed him Minister of the People’s Armed Forces in the summer of 2014. Despite his impressive title, Hyon’s power was limited, as the head of the North Korean Armed Forces is largely a figurehead. True military power rests with the all-powerful Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers Party, and with the National Defense Commission, whose chairman, Kim Jong-Un, controls the military. Still, if the report of Hyon’s execution turns out to be accurate, it will point to the continuation of the power-struggle among different factions within the North Korean political and military hierarchy.
According to South Korean intelligence, Hyon was executed because he “dozed off” during a high-level meeting chaired by Kim, an act that was interpreted as proof of “disrespect and disloyalty”. However, there are suspicions that Hyon had directly challenged Kim on several occasions, and that the North Korean dictator suspected him of organizing an insurrection by members of the military. The NIS said during last week’s briefing that the execution was watched by “hundreds of senior North Korean officials” and that the firing squad made use of high-caliber artillery to kill Hyon, in order to make an example of his brutal killing.
It is worth noting that South Korean intelligence briefings on the North are not always accurate. Seoul claims that North Korean authorities have executed at least 15 senior officials in the past 12 months, among them Jang Song Thaek, uncle to the country’s leader, who was thought to be the second most powerful man in the country until his purported death in December 2013.