North Korea just executed one of its highest-ranking officials for slouching at a meeting. Or did it?

A man watches a TV screen showing a file image of Kim Yong Jin, second from left, a vice premier for education affairs in North Korea's Cabinet, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from right, at the Seoul Railway Station on Aug. 31, 2016.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Last week, South Korean officials announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had executed one senior official, reportedly for slouching at a political meeting, and banished two others to reeducation camps.

News of political violence in North Korea is nothing new — the communist country is known for its opacity and brutality. But for many dedicated North Korea-watchers, any developments within the country’s highly secretive political class are cause for speculation.

Here’s what experts are saying about the latest round of punishments:

How much do we know about this execution?


Not much. South Korean officials told reporters that North Korea executed Kim Yong Jin, a 63-year-old vice premier for education, in July by firing squad. Yet local media gave few details and attributed them to anonymous sources. South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee confirmed the execution during a news conference Wednesday, according to CNN.

The briefing followed a report a day earlier by JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, claiming two senior North Korean officials — former Agricultural Minister Hwang Min and senior Education Ministry official Ri Yong Jin — had been executed with antiaircraft guns in August.

Whether the three executions were related remains open-ended.

So what does it take for a North Korean official to get executed?

Slumping, according to this week’s announcement. Kim Yong Jin, the education official, “was investigated by the North’s intelligence agency due to his sitting posture shown at a key parliamentary meeting held in late June,” reported South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

But very little about North Korean society is clear-cut or straightforward.

“This current story is that he shrugged — that there was some kind of insubordination,” said John Delury, a North Korea expert and professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “But seemingly a very petty act of insubordination. So we assume from that, oh, Kim Jong Un is violent, and extremely insecure. If somebody doesn’t stiffen their back when they walk in the room, he executes them.”

The North and South have remained in a state of conflict for six decades because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice. According to Delury, the two sides “are always badmouthing each other — that’s par for the course.”

So what’s actually going on?


We might never know. North Korea’s state media rarely run anything about the “supreme leader” other than strongman photos and ebullient praise.

What does South Korea make of all this?

South Korea points to killings and recent defections by high-level officials as signs of cracks in the government. The country has no shortage of North Korean sources, at both the highest and the grass-roots levels. Last month, a top-level diplomat in North Korea’s embassy in Britain defected to the South, according to authorities in Seoul. In April, 13 employees of a North Korean-run restaurant in China fled to South Korea, seeking asylum.

But the government shows no obvious signs of rupture, and Kim’s father and grandfather had ruled for decades without facing any serious opposition.

Seoul hasn’t always guessed correctly at its neighbor’s maneuvers. A North Korean general labeled dead by South Korea popped up in May at a ruling party congress. This year, the South’s intelligence officials failed to notice its rival had prepared for a fourth nuclear test.

“We are hunting around for anything we can grasp on to that the place we hate is about to collapse,” said Robert Kelly, an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea. “But we’ll never really know.”


How much do we know about Kim Jong Un’s motives?

Again, very little. The last known execution of such a high-ranking official took place in 2013, when North Korea said Kim had executed the second in command — his uncle, Jang Song Taek. The North’s state-run Korea Central News Agency released a 2,700-word statement calling Jang “despicable human scum” and accusing him of plotting to overthrow the government. Experts believe the new leader more likely wanted to eliminate older cadres who questioned his rule.

How long has this kind of thing been going on?

A long time. Since leaders proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Korea in 1948, the country has led a brutal existence, marked by intermittent purges.

Its first leader, Kim Il Sung, carried out bloody reeducation campaigns in his nearly half a century rule. Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011 and since has pushed out certain military and political elites in an effort to consolidate authority. A United Nations report in 2013 called Kim Jong Un’s public executions “one of the dreadful tools” used to rule by fear.

Why would North Korea use antiaircraft guns to execute officials?


We can’t be too sure that it did.

“Anytime there’s an execution now, you’ll see the claim somewhere that they were killed with antiaircraft guns — it’s like a meme out there,” Delury said. “North Korea is a violent place. But I don’t think it’s the kind of place where you get blown up with an antiaircraft gun because you shrugged at a meeting.”

Meyers is a special correspondent.