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Why is North Korea executing high-level officials with anti-aircraft guns?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

North Korea has reportedly executed a top official, Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol, in a most North Korean manner: by shooting him to pieces with an anti-aircraft gun in front of a crowd of hundreds of other officials.

That's according to South Korea's intelligence service (NIS), which has a history of exaggerating reports about North Korea that make the country look bad. Indeed, while South Korean lawmakers at first described the NIS as categorically stating that Hyon had definitely been executed, the NIS later told the press that they were certain Hyon had been purged, and that they believed with confidence that he had been executed, but were still working to verify the latter.

In any case, there's reason to believe this could have actually happened — and that it could speak volumes about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's hold on power.

First, the official story, according to South Korean intelligence: Kim Jong Un allegedly deemed his defense minister, Hyon Yong Chol, disloyal for dozing off during high-level events and for second-guessing Kim's orders. (You can bet the truth is probably closer to second-guessing, or outright insubordination, than it is to unauthorized napping.) On April 30, Hyon was stood before an anti-aircraft gun — which is essentially a mobile platform of four machine guns large and powerful enough to shoot down an airplane — and executed.

Does North Korea execute people with anti-aircraft guns?

The ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun allegedly used in North Korean executions (US Army, via Human Rights in North Korea)

The ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun allegedly used in North Korean executions. (US Army, via Human Rights in North Korea)

North Korea is an information black hole, and the more salacious reports about it — for example, a story last year that Kim had fed his uncle to 120 hungry dogs — sometimes turn out to be false. For some time, there have been rumors of North Korea executing people with anti-aircraft guns, and it looked like those might also be false.

According to a recent report by the group Human Rights in North Korea, though, those rumors might actually be true. Analysts with the group observed satellite photos from October 2014 that appeared to show a large number of VIPs bused into a military training area, where they watched as several Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns fired down a range at small targets about 100 feet away.

A satellite photo of the firing range during what analysts say was likely an execution by anti-aircraft gun (Human Rights in North Korea)

A satellite photo of the firing range during what analysts say was likely an execution by anti-aircraft gun. (Human Rights in North Korea)

The report, which the Washington Post's Adam Taylor says is credible, concludes that the targets were almost certainly people being executed:

The most plausible explanation of the scene captured in the October
7th satellite image is a gruesome public execution. Anyone who has witnessed the damage one single U.S. .50 caliber round does to the human body will shudder just trying to imagine a battery of 24 heavy machine guns being fired at human beings. Bodies would be nearly pulverized.

The point of such executions, of course, would be precisely to be gruesome and horrifying, to send a message to other officials of both the strength of the regime and the price of any disloyalty.

The greatest danger to Kim Jong Un's rule wouldn't be outside threats or even a popular uprising, but rather the circle of elites who surround him and keep him in power. So the young Kim may feel it's crucial to constantly signal that he is in charge and that top officials must stay in line.

These executions appear to be much more common under his rule than they were under his father or grandfather. The uncle who was rumored to have been killed by dogs, for example, turned out to have more likely been executed by anti-aircraft gun.

Kim Jong Un is "trigger-happy" when it comes to executing top officials

One of the world's top North Korea analysts, Andrei Lankov, points out at NKNews that the country's previous two rulers — founding leader Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il — rarely executed top officials. And purged officials were more likely to be exiled, say, to a farm, than outright killed.

But Kim Jong Un, Lankov writes, has "proved himself to be remarkably trigger-happy" when it comes to executing top officials. Kim, after all, is quite young and inexperienced, and spent much of his life in lavish boarding schools abroad. He may well be "potentially the object of ridicule but also contempt" among top officials, who are older and more experienced. This likely explains the near-continuous series of high-level purges since Kim came into power with his father's 2011 death, including his own uncle last year.

There are two ways, then, to read Kim's habit of high-level and ultra-violent purges. Perhaps it is a show of his strength: if he can even have a decorated military leader like Hyon Yong Chol killed and can march hundreds of his officials out to a firing range to make them quietly watch, then he must be pretty powerful. Or perhaps the fact that Kim thinks he has to do this at all shows how fundamentally insecure his rule is — and that could actually make his hold on power even weaker.

As Lankov points out, one reason North Korea's elites have been so loyal is that their positions were generally pretty safe. That might no longer be the case:

Under Kim Jong Un, this old strategy [of remaining loyal and hoping for the best] seemingly no longer always works. Disgrace may mean death. So for an official in the firing line, resistance may make more sense than waiting for a short trip to the execution grounds. Fleeing the country with bags of state secrets or staging a coup now make a lot more sense than they once did.

Either reading of Kim's purge spree could be accurate. It's simply too soon, and we have too little information, to tell (something that Lankov stresses). But it does appear increasingly that something may have changed in the fundamental relationship between North Korea's top leader and his coterie of senior-most officials, the potential ramifications of which are as difficult to understate as they are to predict.