Top North Korea defense official executed, South Korea spy agency says

South Korean intelligence agency believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un killed his top defense minister

North Korea has executed its top defense official for treason -- killing him with an antiaircraft gun because he fell asleep during a meeting -- South Korea’s main intelligence agency has told lawmakers.

If the report by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is confirmed, the killing of Gen. Hyon Yong-chol would be the latest in a series of purges by young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been at the helm for more than two years. He has been North Korea's leader for more than three years.

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In the more than two years that Kim, in his early 30s, has been at the helm, he has allegedly purged dozens of senior officials in an apparent effort to consolidate his control of the isolated country and cow potential threats to his rule.

On Tuesday morning, intelligence agents told lawmakers in a closed session that Hyon was executed using an antiaircraft gun for falling asleep during a meeting at which Kim was present and for not following some of Kim’s orders.

The NIS did not explain how the agents concluded that Hyon had been executed, mentioning only that he had not appeared in reports by North Korea’s official state media since sometime last month.

South Korean media ran photos on Wednesday of Hyon appearing sleepy and inattentive while seated near Kim during meetings in April.

Stories about state-orchestrated violence and repression in North Korea, often attributed to unnamed sources, appear frequently in the South Korean media. But the fact that the report on Hyon came during an official government hearing gives it significant credibility, analysts say.

“They must have a very high confidence level in order to release this,” said Daniel Pinkston, Seoul-based Northeast Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group and author of a report on South Korea’s intelligence apparatus.

“If Hyon were to show up in a week or two at some official event, it would be very embarrassing for them [the NIS],” Pinkston added.

The NIS has said that about 70 officials have been purged since Kim took over. The most notable of Kim’s purges was his uncle-by-marriage, Jang Song Thaek, in late 2013. Jang had been considered the second most powerful figure in North Korea and a kind of mentor to Kim in the early stages of his rule. He was accused of misusing state resources, but a number of North Korean experts believe that he could have been deemed a possible threat to Kim’s power.

The NIS announced Jang’s purge and execution, and it was later confirmed by North Korea’s official media, which released a video of Jang being handcuffed and dragged out of a state function.

Hyon, believed to be in his 60s, was promoted to vice marshal status in 2012, only to be demoted later that year.

The inner workings of North Korea’s leadership are opaque and information about appointments, promotions and purges is often not released, either domestically or abroad. 

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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