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North Korean Purge: Vice Premier Missing for Eight Months After Criticizing Kim

A South Korean news agency with a record of breaking news from Pyongyang reports this week that North Korea has executed by firing squad Vice Premier Choe Yong-gon, deputy minister of construction and building material industries, for disagreeing with Kim Jong-un on matters of forestry.

South Korean agency Yonhap reports that Choe was executed months ago; the precise date is not known. The 63-year-old Choe was known not only for his work in construction and forestation in North Korea, but for playing a pivotal role in previous attempts at South Korean/North Korean diplomacy. Choe had traveled to Seoul during Kim Jong-il’s tenure to engage in talks with officials there. South Korean government officials could not confirm the execution, only noting that Choe has indeed been missing from the public eye since December.

The BBC notes that it is believed Choe’s death was the product of his decision to “express discomfort against the young leader’s forestation policy.” Yonhap has not elaborated further. The BBC adds that South Korean officials had reported in April that up to 15 high-ranking officials had been executed, among them “a forestry official who complained about the leader’s forestation plan,” but there is no confirmation that this man was Choe.

Forestation has become an extremely urgent and controversial topic in North Korea this year, as officials declared an emergency regarding a tree rot of unknown origin threatening to destroy acres of fields for growing crops. North Korean officials have reportedly been so concerned that their pinelands are being destroyed by an unidentified disease that they have solicited the aid of South Korea in diagnosing the problem. Officials from Seoul told The Korea Herald in July that eight South Korean specialists would travel to the North to help diagnose the trees.

In addition to Choe, Yonhap noted that about 70 high-ranking North Korean officials have been executed during the younger Kim’s tenure. Most recently, a senior Workers’ Party official was executed in September, according to reports.

The news follows expanded belligerent activity from North Korea, including evidence that it has begun to once again enrich uranium to use in nuclear plants. Analysts using satellite evidence have argued that there is reason to believe a new centrifuge has been built and is operational at the Yongbyon nuclear power plant. “What we suggest is that North Korea has just begun to double its centrifuge enrichment capability,” Karl Dewey, the proliferation editor at IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, told CNN. The outlet noted that many believe North Korea is already in possession of up to 15 nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons have been the least of South Korea’s worries this month, however, as North Korea stands accused of planting land mines on the Southern side of the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two countries. Two South Korean soldiers lost parts of their legs when happening upon a “wood-box” land mine, constructed almost exclusively by North Korea in the region. South Korea has vowed that the North will receive “a severe retaliation” for the unusual transgression, which seemed to occur with little prompting or unusual public fanfare against Seoul from the North.

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