A Story of Paranoia and Gore: Why North Korea Uses Such Brutal Execution Methods

North Korea's defense chief was reportedly executed using an anti-aircraft gun.


Since assuming power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has presided over a brutal consolidation of power, executing his perceived enemies with incredible frequency and morbid creativity. At least 70 officials have been executed during this time, and the latest victim was his defense chief, Hyon Yong Chol, who was executed using an anti-aircraft gun, according to South Korean spies. His crime: insubordination and allegedly falling asleep during an event attended by Kim.

North Korea typically executes traitors, spies, and other disloyal subjects by firing squad, but Kim’s brief reign has been replete with reports of grisly execution methods. The use of anti-aircraft guns to carry out executions hints at the use of public brutality as a means of repression in North Korea. (Incredibly, one such execution — perhaps even Chol’s — may have been captured on publicly available satellite imagery.) High-caliber anti-aircraft guns of the variety used in the latest execution are enormously powerful machine guns capable of slinging what are the equivalent of U.S. 50-caliber rounds miles into the sky. When directed at the human body at close range, the destruction would be devastating and a human body likely pulverized.

Why use such a weapon? South Korean spies say that a large crowd had gathered for Chol’s execution. Presumably the spectacle of a human body being destroyed by high-caliber machine gun fire is one the crowd will not forget anytime soon.

And Hyon’s execution isn’t the first time that North Korea has used anti-aircraft guns as a method of execution. Before executing his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013, Kim Jong Un had the man’s two top lieutenants killed with the weapons. Jang was later executed by firing squad, though some spurious reports described him being killed by a pack of hungry dogs.

This kind of brutality appears to be becoming more commonplace under Kim’s rule. In 2012, the North Korean leader executed a deputy defense minister using mortar rounds after the military official allegedly broke a prohibition on drinking alcohol during the mourning period for Kim’s father.

There’s reason to believe Kim learned from his father’s own creativity in executions. After North Korea’s 6th Army Corps rose up against him in 1995, Kim Jong Il reportedly tied up the officers responsible for the attempted coup in their headquarters, and then burned down the building, according to one account of uprising. Another description of the event claims the soldiers responsible were executed by machine-gun brandishing firing squads.

Today, the threats arrayed against Kim appear far less serious than the 6th Corps uprising. Rather, Kim’s reign of terror has appeared geared toward amassing power and eliminating perceived rivals to the throne. There have been no credible reports during his reign of a coup being attempted, though it’s certainly likely that North Korea would not publicize such a plot if one had been launched and subsequently crushed. This year alone, Kim executed a senior official who dared complain about his forestry policy. Another official charged with economic planning was killed after complaining about the design of a roof on a building being built in the North Korean capital. Separately, four members of the Unhasu Orchestra were killed on espionage charges.

For Kim, apparently, even orchestra pits become snake pits that must be tamed — sometimes with anti-aircraft guns.

ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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