What's Really Going On In North Korea? Four Possible Explanations

North Korea is one of the biggest geopolitical risks in Asia, so any possible changes to the status quo merit considerable attention. This is why the reported execution of defence minister Hyon Yong Chol is significant. If the reports are true, then Hyon's death represents the elimination of yet another senior regime figure, underscoring a remarkable degree of volatility at the top. This implies that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is having major difficulties managing high-ranking officials. If there were no problems, there would be no need for reshuffles. Joseph Stalin once said, "Death solves all problems. No man, no problem". That may not necessarily be true in North Korea's case. By demoting, dismissing, or executing (around 70 so far) so many senior cadres, Kim Jong Un is creating a group of disgruntled figures who will have every reason to plot against him. Obviously the deceased cannot plot, but their surviving former colleagues can.

Was General Hyon Yong Chol Really Executed?

Before we go on, we need to express a word of caution about the reports on May 12-13, citing South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS), that Hyon was publicly executed by anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of people on April 30.

It is not unusual for South Korea's media to report the execution of a high-profile North Korean, only for that person to suddenly reappear alive and well some time later. A good example is the fate of Kim Jong Un's supposed former partner and pop singer Hyon Song Wol, who in August 2013 was reported to have been executed by firing squad for appearing in pornographic videos. As with the reported execution of defence minister Hyon (no relation), the story was picked up by the international media and cited as further proof of Kim Jong Un's cruelty. However, Hyon Song Wol subsequently reappeared at a public event in Pyongyang in May 2014.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that North Korea really does execute senior figures from time to time, with the highest-profile case to date being that of Kim's uncle Jang Song Thaek in December 2013 on corruption and treason charges. The most unusual aspect of Jang's execution, apart from the fact that he was a member of the ruling family, was that his crimes and death were revealed to the public in state media. Pyongyang does not typically report executions, let alone reveal the existence of high-level plots (whether real or fabricated) against the regime.

Hyon Yong Chol rose from obscurity to chief of general staff of the army in July 2012 following the dismissal of Ri Yong Ho (officially on health grounds), one of the most powerful figures in North Korea at that time. A few months later, Hyon was demoted by one rank, and in May 2013, he was demoted to a regional corps commander. Yet in June 2014 he was suddenly made defence minister, making him the fifth person to hold the post in 2½ years. Hyon subsequently enjoyed a high public profile, visiting Moscow in November 2014 and April 2015 for the purposes of strengthening ties with Russia, a key initiative of Kim Jong Un amid strained relations with China.

Hyon's last public appearance was at a musical performance on April 29, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. Yet according to the NIS, Hyon was executed the following day, meaning that his fall from grace was extremely sudden, even by North Korean standards. Curiously, on April 30 Russia announced that Kim Jong Un had cancelled plans to attend the 70th anniversary VE Day celebrations in Moscow due to "internal affairs" (although that may have been the Kremlin's own take on the matter), implying problems at home. Perhaps Hyon's visits to Moscow had failed to persuade Russia to step up economic and military support to North Korea… although that would hardly merit his execution. Either way, Hyon was absent from a military conference on May 1 attended by other members of the top brass, and he has received no further mentions in the state media.

Those who doubt Hyon's execution point out that state media has shown him in archive footage this week, and that if he really had been executed for treason, then he would have been deleted from official images, a fate that befell Jang Song Thaek and others. The counter-argument is that the North's censors have not had enough time to delete Hyon from existing media.

Four Possible Explanations For The Hyon Story

The first explanation is that the prevailing story on Hyon's execution is true. Back in January, army operations director Pyon In Son was also reportedly executed for disloyalty, and he has not been seen since November 2014 (although this is not conclusive proof of his death). If Hyon and Pyon are both dead, then this confirms our view of extreme turbulence at the top of the military hierarchy, which will probably raise the prospects of a coup over the coming months or years.

The second explanation is that Hyon has merely been demoted or has suddenly taken ill. This would explain his absence after April 29 and his retention in old footage. It would also mean that the NIS had got it wrong about his execution. If this is the case, North Korea could easily dispel the rumours by showing Hyon on TV attending a new public event. However, Pyongyang doesn't necessarily feel the need to prove anything to the outside world, so this would not automatically happen.

The third explanation is that Hyon has been killed by an influential faction as part of a power struggle, and that the regime would not want to admit this publicly, since this would imply that there is significant opposition, and that the regime had failed to guarantee the security of one of its top members.

The fourth explanation is that nothing major has happened to Hyon, and that there is some deliberate deception taking place on the part of Pyongyang or Seoul. Kim Jong Un might be trying to shock the outside world for some esoteric or obscure reason, perhaps coinciding with the North's recent test of a submarine launched ballistic missile (although there are also doubts about the authenticity of this). Alternatively, the NIS may be spreading false rumours to further tarnish the Kim regime, or to indirectly spread confusion in North Korea itself.

Whatever the truth, there has unquestionably been a remarkably high turnover of top military officials since Kim came to power in December 2011, implying that he is dissatisfied with the powerful armed forces. The more generals Kim demotes or executes, the greater the likelihood that some disgruntled commanders will eventually move against him.