Was a North Korean General Really Executed by Mortar Fire?

Who knows? But it has the ring of truth.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

The latest gallows gossip from Pyongyang recounts the execution of fifty-something Kim Chol, the nom de guerre of a deputy defense minister. South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported in late October that Kim was one of several senior Korean People’s Army officials executed or arrested after Kim Jong Un’s accession following the December 2011 death of his father Kim Jong Il. According to the paper, during North Korea’s official three-month mourning period, Kim Chol enjoyed liquor in the company of a female colleague in the North Korean military, a violation of Kim Jong Un’s explicit warning against "singing or dancing, merrymaking or recreation." If the story is accurate, Kim Chol and his comrades were killed by mortar rounds fired at point-blank range.

Kim Chol’s fate cannot be confirmed. North Korea is notoriously opaque, with strict controls on information and a rigorously censored state media. Narrative accounts about North Korean elites are often fabrications; little snippets of information are imaginatively threaded together by creative diplomats or intelligence officials (Chosun Ilbo sourced Kim Chol’s death to a lawmakers’ "intelligence data") and peddled to journalists working in the hyper-competitive South Korean and Japanese media markets. And yet sometimes the stories of elites emerge from gossip inside the country, from clerks, typists, telephone operators, workers in foreign trading corporations and middle management in the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. The Kim Chol story first appeared in South Korean media in March; its reappearance, and the trivial reason cited for his execution, suggests it originated from gossip.

It also suggests that rumors of his fate may have been intentionally circulated to warn ambitious members of the military not to challenge the authority of the new leadership. Although Kim Chol was only a second-tier official in the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, he enjoyed a decent public profile. In October 2010 he was part of the delegation that saw off then army chief of staff Ri Yong Ho at the airport before his visit to Cuba (Ri was dismissed in July 2012 in a major purge). In October 2011, Kim attended a wreath laying ceremony at the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower in Pyongyang with visiting Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang.

The rumored execution of an official who attended a state event with a top official of the country’s closest ally might deter other North Korean elite from challenging the new leader. To external observers, it suggests that Kim Jong Un will manage North Korea’s generals in the same fashion as his paranoid, wily father.

In December 1989, with a velvet wind blowing apart the Warsaw Pact communist countries in central and east Europe, military authorities arrested Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu (a Kim acolyte) and his wife. The execution of the Ceau?escus by firing squad, aired on Romanian state television, incited prayerful consideration in Pyongyang. For Kim Jong Il, who had taken over the civilian reins of government from his ailing father Kim Il Sung, it caused him to double down on personal security measures and to construct an elaborate evacuation network of tunnels and safe houses. To those in the military opposed to his succession, it germinated the kernel of a direct challenge, subsequently emboldened by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In July 1994, Kim Il Sung passed away. In 1995, Kim Jong Il faced his only known significant military challenge. While the details remain unclear, it appears that the 6th Army Corps, one of the military’s nine major regular army units, abandoned their posts and might have mobilized with the intention of marching on the capital. When word of the 6th Corps’ challenge to the leadership reached Pyongyang, the response was rapid and violent. Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law Jang Song Taek and several core military leaders deployed to the area, and disbanded the unit. Scores of commanders and officers were reportedly executed. Some accounts claim a firing squad brandishing machine guns mowed them down. Other accounts say the officers were tied up and restrained in their headquarters, which was burned down.

Kim Jong Il had learned the importance of keeping his friends close and his generals closer. Until he assumed the role of supreme leader in 1997 (after a three-year morning period for his beloved father), almost all of his reported public appearances were field inspections of military units. This broadcast the military’s prominence as Kim Jong Il’s most valued political constituency. Under his "military first" policy, the military received priority in the allocation of increasingly scarce food and energy resources, as well as the rights to a number of lucrative foreign-currency generating economic activities. Having given his generals the butter churn, Kim Jong Il handed out the guns. Research and development into nuclear weapons continued, and the development and production of ballistic missiles thrived.

The number of military officials treated to the largesse of Kim Jong Il’s party economy steadily increased. They were permitted fine homes and vacation at exclusive retreats. On state holidays he gifted expensive automobiles, household appliances, and various luxury goods. As with Kim’s close aides in the party, military officials were allowed wide administrative latitude in how they managed the daily affairs of their respective agencies and units. This eventually incited fierce bureaucratic turf warfare among senior security officials. It suited Kim Jong Il’s interests as leader to have his generals squabbling among themselves instead of challenging him.

With these carrots came the sticks. While North Korean generals enjoyed a significant degree of managerial autonomy, the system in which they operated remained centered around Kim Jong Il, who spied on their professional (and personal) activities and maintained control of all personnel appointments and major policy decisions. Kim protected his position at the power center, and insulated himself from any hostile takeovers by his generals behind a formidable intelligence and security apparatus.

The Military Security Command (MSC), a security agency tasked with monitoring the military, uses a variety of eavesdropping and communications interception technology to monitor the telephone conversations and Intranet usage of military commanders. The MSC also manages the bureaucratic paperwork (birth certificates, marriages, school registration, travel permits) of the spouses and children of military officers, which allows the agency and its bosses in Pyongyang to monitor the personal and family lives of military officials for signs of discontent and thwart any possible coup attempts before they reach a critical mass.

If this intricate surveillance system that he inherited from his father were to fail Kim Jong Un, he has the added protection of three of heavily armed security forces: the 3rd Army Corps, Pyongyang Defense Command, and the Guard Command. In the event of an attempted coup or power grab, the approximately 35,000-40,000 members of the 3rd Army Corps (stationed in nearby South P’yo’ngan Province) would mobilize to form a defensive ring to protect the capital. If the 3rd Army Corps became immobilized, the next layer of protection would be the Pyongyang Defense Command (PDC), a highly mobile force of 60,000 armed with tanks, armored combat vehicles, and a variety of artillery pieces that exists primarily to quell a military coup with extreme prejudice. Days before he died, Kim Jong Il conducted an inspection of the PDC, his last reported field inspection of a military unit. Joined by his son, they watched soldiers firing heavy artillery, an effective tool to deal with the military’s malcontents.

The final layer around the core leadership is the Guard Command, the most technically advanced and best-trained security organization in North Korea, which I estimate to include between 70,000 to 100,000 soldiers. It runs a separate surveillance and reporting network on senior officials and is permitted to monitor all communications in North Korea, while also possessing access to surveillance reports submitted by the MSC and other internal security agencies. The Guard Command manages the critical infrastructure — roads, tunnels, and communications — of which Kim Jong Un would avail himself if the military threatened his authority. It also maintains and protects Kim family residential compounds and several underground fortified facilities where the leader would go in a crisis. If Kim Jong Un’s actual authority evaporated, the Guard Command could mobilize chemical weapons against the leader’s belligerents.

If reports about the execution of Kim Chol and other senior military officials are accurate, it was one or a combination of those three organizations that pulled the trigger. And yet, stories of the violent deaths or imprisonments of North Korean elites can be greatly exaggerated. If all the rumors of purges over the last five years were true, then the parade review platform in Pyongyang would be desolate. Nobody could be photographed attending important meetings or parliamentary sessions, nor would anyone be around to ensure that missile tests and experimental nuclear detonations ran on time. Still, amid a cytoplasm of deception, disinformation, and misunderstanding, Pyongyang palace gossip contains a nucleus of truth.

<p> Michael Madden is the author and editor of North Korea Leadership Watch, and the author of more than 200 profiles on North Korea's political organizations and political leaders. </p>