The South Korean news agency Yonhap is reporting that North Korea has executed the nation’s army chief of General Staff, reportedly on charges of corruption. This disruption in Pyongyang’s leadership follows a string of belligerent acts on the part of the communist regime, most recently the use of a long-range rocket to launch an alleged satellite into orbit.
Yonhap cites unnamed “sources familiar with North Korean affairs” as claiming that Ri Yong-gil, the general in charge of the Korean People’s Army, was executed sometime this month following allegations that he had attempted to use his military position for financial gain. Reuters independently confirmed the execution with a North Korean source, who also requested not to be identified for fear of retribution.
Yonhap adds as evidence Ri has been removed from his position, if not outright executed, the fact that he was notably absent from events this weekend celebrating the launching of a rocket allegedly carrying a satellite into space. “In listing the leaders present at the celebrations, the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper did not mention Ri and instead listed Gen. Ri Myong-su in his place,” Yonhap notes, suggesting Ri Myong-su has replaced Ri Yong-gil in some permanent capacity.
One source told Yonhap that they do not believe Ri’s execution could have come about through any ideological disagreement. “Ri Yong-gil is known to have been faithful to principles, so it appears the North cited (the charges) to justify his execution,” the source noted, though he added it was possible that, in addition to seeking undue personal gain from the position, Ri may have leveled concerns at dictator Kim Jong-un that certain civilian political leaders had been given military responsibilities. This may be the charge of “factional conspiracy” sources mentioned to Reuters.
Reuters adds that, in addition to Ri, “some other high-ranking officials in the North have been absent from public view for extended periods, fuelling speculation they may have been purged or removed, only to resurface.”
Atop that list is Kim Kyong-hui, dictator Kim’s aunt and sister to his predecessor, Kim Jong-il. Kim Kyong-hui has been missing from public life for years, triggering various theories that she has been killed or fallen gravely ill. In February 2015, South Korea’s intelligence service confirmed they had proof that Kim was still alive. In May of the same year, however, a prominent North Korean defector claims that Kim Jong-un ordered her killed in May 2014. “Only his bodyguard unit, Unit 974, knew this–now senior officials also know she was poisoned,” the defector claimed.
Kim Kyong-hui’s husband, Jang Song-thaek, is one of the few North Korean public officials to have been executed and mentioned in official state media. Jang was allegedly killed by anti-aircraft fire in 2013. North Korean media described him as “depraved” and “worse than a dog,” alleging that he was engaged in unsavory personal activities that damaged the communist regime. All articles mentioning him disappeared shortly after the announcement of his execution. He served as vice chairman of the National Defence Commission of North Korea.
North Korea’s official state outlets–the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper–have made no indications of major changes in the nation’s military leadership structure. Instead, the outlets continue to boast of the “earth observation satellite” launched this weekend, calling it “a manifestation of the greatest glory to and the profound reverence for leader Kim Jong Il and a gift of most intense loyalty presented by our space scientists and technicians to Marshal Kim Jong Un.”
Rodong Sinmun has called the satellite “a complete success.”
American officials doubt that the satellite is functioning, however. An American official told ABC News that U.S. observation of the object as it floats in orbit indicates that it is “tumbling,” rendered useless by its inability to remain stable in space. He noted that North Korea may still consider the launch a success because the “Unha 3 rocket was able to get its payload into orbit.” North Korea may later use the same rocket to launch weapons across long distances, possibly targeting the United States.