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For North Korean Officials, Falling Asleep on the Job and Arguing Over Forestry Policy Could Get You Killed

Kim Jong-Un is apparently using purges and executions to consolidate his power.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) claps as he attends the unveiling ceremony of two statues of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang on April 13, 2012.  North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-Un on April 13 led a mass rally for his late father and grandfather following the country's failed rocket launch. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones        (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) claps as he attends the unveiling ceremony of two statues of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang on April 13, 2012. North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-Un on April 13 led a mass rally for his late father and grandfather following the country's failed rocket launch. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

In his first three years as North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un executed some 70 government officials, according to South Korean intelligence. That’s about seven times more executions than his father, Kim Jong-Il, carried out against officials during the first few years of his 17-year reign. The latest official to be executed — Ri Yong-Gil, one of Pyongyang’s top generals — was killed this month, a South Korean official told The New York Times on Wednesday.

Lisa Collins, a fellow in the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy that the high number of executions indicate Kim is “a relatively young leader, and he’s still learning how to use the levers of power within North Korea.” Many believe Kim’s youth makes it more difficult for him to assert authority with government officials. That includes balancing power between two top institutions: the ruling Worker’s Party and the military. The apparently trivial reasons for the executions can mask the underlying power struggle at play.

Since North Korea rarely reports government purges, and the South Korean intelligence service sometimes declines to confirm information, it can be impossible to independently verify reports from South Korean government officials and news media. However, reports suggest that Ri may have been killed for resisting the ruling party’s reassertion of power over the military.

Here are five other executions believed to have been carried out during what South Korea is calling Kim’s “reign of terror”:

Name: Choe Yong-Gon

Position: Vice Premier

Reason for execution: Poor work performance; expressing disagreement with Kim’s forestry policy.

 

Name: unknown

Position: Vice Minister in charge of economic planning

Reason for execution: Disagreement over Kim’s desired roof design for a Pyongyang building.

 

Name: Jang Song-Thaek

Position: Top government official and Kim’s uncle

Reason for execution: Political and economic power struggle; firefight between soldiers loyal to Kim and those loyal to Jang; showed disrespect to Kim by “unwillingly standing up from his seat and halfheartedly clapping”

 

Name: Hyon Yong-Chol

Position: Minister of the People’s Armed Forces

Reason for execution: Questioned Kim’s orders; nodded off during military events

 

Name: Kim Chol

Position: Deputy defense minister

Reason for execution: Drank alcohol during the mourning period for Kim Jong-Il

 

Photo credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Feb. 10, 2016: The ruling Workers’ Party has reasserted control over North Korea’s military. An earlier version of this story said that the party had taken control over the military.

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. @megan_alpert

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