A top candidate for weirdest story of the week is the alleged execution by anti-aircraft fire of North Korean Defence Minister Hyon Yong-chol on or around April 30. What are we to make of it?
If true, the story indicates one of two possible things: either there is great turmoil at the top of the North Korean leadership, or Kim Jong-un is mentally unbalanced.
Hyon would be latest in a series of senior officials executed recently and the most senior since Kim’s uncle and former mentor, Jang Song-thaek, was executed in 2013. According to South Korean intelligence, senior officials in North Korea are being executed at the rate of one a week. Jang was publicly branded a traitor, though not for specified crimes (it was widely thought at the time that he was brought down by a rival faction in the North Korean military). Hyon’s alleged crimes include falling asleep at an event attended by Kim Jong-un and not carrying out instructions. In a normal country ruled by rational people, Hyon’s offences would at most merit being relieved, demoted, or reprimanded, publicly or privately. So either these are not his real offences, or the country is not being ruled by rational people.
It is entirely possible that there is discord and unhappiness amongst the North Korean political and military elite. For decades it has been clear that the country is going nowhere fast. Once richer and more prosperous than the South, North Korea has fallen steadily behind. Its economy is now barely 2 percent of South Korea’s; life expectancy is a decade shorter; malnutrition is widespread; and it is isolated and reviled internationally. Anyone near the top in Pyongyang who cared for anything more than their own personal position of comfort and privilege in a rapacious, kleptocratic state would be asking themselves—and, if they could trust them, others—about the quality of the nation’s leadership. A leader such as Kim would presumably be highly sensitive to undercurrents of dissent, and could easily pick up on them given the Orwellian surveillance capabilities at his disposal. So what we might be seeing is Kim’s rational attempt to crush and deter dissent before it threatens to topple him.
It is also possible, however, that Hyon’s crime really was to fall asleep in the presence of the Dear Leader. Only a nutbar would construe that as a threat or as treason and use it as an excuse for death by anti-aircraft fire.
Both of these possibilities are deeply troubling. North Korea is a heavily-armed country. It has nuclear weapons and enough artillery to level Seoul within a week. On the one hand, chaos at the top could result in state collapse or civil war, triggering a massive refugee crisis and potentially dragging in South Korea and/or China. On the other hand, a paranoid and megalomaniacal psychopath might actually carry through one day on one of his many hysterical nuclear threats. In neither case would it be possible to engage North Korea in rational, meaningful dialogue even in an atmosphere of calm, let alone in the heat of one of the Korean peninsula’s all-too-frequent crises.
But is the story true? This is a question always worth asking with respect to North Korea, for two reasons. First, Pyongyang is the most secretive and most isolated regime in the world, and by all accounts one of the most difficult to penetrate. No credible intelligence analyst believes that South Korean or U.S. intelligence has a good window on North Korean decision making. While it is likely that both have sources in the North Korean government and military at some level, almost certainly they do not at or near the very top, and in any case, with human intelligence sources one must always contend with a serious signal-to-noise problem. (Electronic or signals intelligence has a better signal-to-noise ratio, but in a backward police state such as North Korea, which is paranoid about being spied on and relies heavily on old-fashioned hard-wired communications infrastructure, bugs are difficult to place, phones are difficult to tap, and little worth eavesdropping on is ever transmitted through the air). Unless there is independent evidence confirming any particular report, it is always worthwhile being somewhat skeptical about it—particularly if it is as bizarre and outlandish as this one. We will have to wait and see whether independent confirmation is forthcoming.
Second, there is an enormous appetite for bizarre and outlandish stories about North Korea. The large and growing number of North Korean defectors living in the South, who have voted their opposition with their feet and who in many cases still have friends and family in the North about whom they care, crave news about the regime, and the worse the news, the better. Those of us in the rest of the world find stories such as these morbidly fascinating. The economics of journalism very understandably explain why stories such as this are treated uncritically and go viral so quickly. Witness the story of Kim having his traitorous uncle Jang literally fed to the dogs—which, it turned out, began as a satirical post on Chinese social media.
We may or may not find out whether the story of Hyon’s grisly execution by AA fire is true. But in a sense, it does not matter. The real story here is that we have very little handle on what is actually going on in North Korea. And that is something that should keep us up at night.