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SEOUL, South Korea — The head of North Korea’s armed forces has been executed for treason and insubordination after being caught dozing at a military event, South Korea’s spy agency announced Wednesday.

North Korea watchers say the latest in a string of reported purges may be designed deter disloyalty among dictator Kim Jong Un’s subordinates. It also seems to reflect lingering insecurity by the young leader and paranoia that high-ranking officials could be plotting to oust him.

“This shows Kim Jong Un’s way of controlling North Korea is through extreme decisiveness,” said Yang Mu-jin, a political science professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “People below the top leader must follow without questioning.”

Hyon Yong-chol, North Korea’s defense minister, was executed by firing squad around April 30 at a military school in Pyongyang, according to South Korea’s spy agency, with some reports indicating an antiaircraft gun was used as a small crowd watched.

South Korea’s Yonhap News reported the purge after journalists were briefed by the National Intelligence Service, which also briefed the National Assembly in a closed-door session earlier in the day.

The NIS said it believes Hyon’s actions had been seen as disrespectful to Kim, but he had not planned to overthrow the regime, Yonhap reported.

An official with the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that Hyon had been seen sleeping during a military event and was believed not to have carried out directions given by Kim.

South Korean defense officials said their military has not been put on heightened alert and would not discuss whether Hyon’s death indicates political volatility within the North, though one official said privately he believes Kim remains in firm control.

Yang said that while Kim has tried to portray a warm attitude toward the general population with public appearances and allowing small markets to sprout up in the poverty-wracked communist country, he maintains a tight grip on the military and does not tolerate anyone questioning his authority. He assumed leadership of the secretive country in 2011 following the death of his father Kim Jong Il.

The NIS said last month that Pyongyang has killed 15 senior officials this year, according to Yonhap.

Kim Jin Moo, a senior research fellow Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said such purges are typical during any leadership change in a despotic regime. The 2013 execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle and close adviser, was the start of his efforts to rid his government of disloyal elements, he said.

The executions certainly appear to be an example of Kim Jong Un’s leadership style, a sign that he will immediately squelch any hint of challenge to his power. They will also have the effect of shoring up loyalty because his subordinates know they will be killed if they show any sign they aren’t backing him and his policies.

Kim Jin Moo said the dictator’s decision not to travel to Russia for the upcoming celebration the anniversary of World War II, along with this year’s purges, may be a sign of Kim’s insecurity and fears of a military coup in his absence.

“There’s no person in the country he can trust,” he said.

It is unclear what the latest execution means for Pyongyang’s foreign relations. The U.S. has expressed willingness to reopen six-nation talks about the North’s worrisome nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

rowland.ashley@stripes.com

chang.yookyong@stripes.com


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