As the international community continues to grapple with how to properly reduce the global risk of an emboldened and increasingly erratic North Korea, South Korea warns that dictator Kim Jong-un appears to have completely overhauled his intelligence agency.
Senior South Korean intelligence officials reportedly confirmed that police had arrested Kim Won-hong, the head of Pyongyang’s Ministry of State Security, and executed another five individuals described as “senior officials” of the agency. The South Korean wire agency Yonhap adds that Kim Won-hong was reportedly fired last month for having “abused his authority.” Kim also lost his military rank of general, being demoted to major general. South Korean intelligence officials believe he is still alive.
South Korean officials reportedly added that they had evidence indicating the five individuals executed were killed with “anti-aircraft fire” because they had filed “false reports” to the dictator that “enraged” him.
Yonhap claims dictator Kim Jong-un also “ordered the relocation of the statute of Kim Jong-il from the [State Security] agency’s headquarters, claiming the organization ‘does not deserve’ the honor.”
The news of Kim Won-hong’s removal is not new — the New York Times filed a report claiming he had been “dismissed on charges of corruption and abuse of power” in early February. At the time, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee noted that observers considered Kim Won-hong a key player in ensuring that dictator Kim Jong-un’s wishes of continual purges and strict enforcement of loyalty to his rule were met. “His dismissal could further deepen unrest among officials and add to the instability of the regime by weakening its control on the people,” the spokesman warned.
Such purges are not uncommon in Pyongyang, however. In 2013, for example, Kim Jong-un shocked the world with the announcement that his uncle and second-in-command, Jang Song-Thaek, had been executed for a variety of crimes in his “dissolute and depraved life” including gambling, womanizing, and drug use. Jang was considered to have a close relationship with China.
Nearly two years later, Pyongyang announced the execution of Vice Premier Choe Yong-gon. While not condemning him morally the way reports did Jang, South Korean officials revealed their intelligence indicated that Choe was executed for choosing to “express discomfort against the young leader’s [Kim’s] forestation policy.”
Late that year, Yonhap reported that Kim had ordered the purging of Workers’ Party Secretary Choe Ryong Hae after a Mount Paektu power plant severely malfunctioned; Choe was sentenced to work in a “re-education” labor camp.
The news of the execution of five State Security officials comes at a delicate time in international relations for Communist North Korea. The governments of South Korea and Malaysia have accused Pyongyang of another purge: the murder of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother to the dictator. Earlier this month, a woman killed Kim at Kuala Lumpur airport using VX nerve agent, a weapon of mass destruction. Malaysian officials have traced leads on the killing back to Pyongyang.
North Korea dispatched senior diplomat Ri Tong-il to Malaysia on Tuesday; Ri said he would demand Kim Jong-nam’s body be returned to North Korea, as Pyongyang has rejected the result of the Malaysian autopsy that revealed the use of VX nerve agent. North Korea has also sent Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil-song to Beijing to discuss relations with China. China recently halted all North Korean coal shipments into the country, following the news of Kim Jong-nam’s death. Beijing denied that the death had anything to do with the decision to no longer accept coal from North Korea.