Why Kim Jong-un would savagely execute a top general (if it happened this time)

North Korea Kim Jong UnREUTERS/KCNANorth Korean leader Kim Jong Un sits down during an inspection of KPA Unit 1313.

The latest shocking news out of North Korea, according to South Korea’s intelligence agency (NIS), is that a top-ranking general had allegedly been executed with an anti-aircraft gun.

Korea analysts questioned the assertion to The New York Times, but they did agree one thing: This is certainly something that North Korean Leader Kim Jung-un would do.

Analyst doubts rest upon the idea that the supposedly executed general, Hyon Yong-chol, appeared in propaganda videos that were broadcast this week. (Although the films might have been filmed a while ago, North Korea typically stops broadcasting images of people once they have been executed.)

Furthermore, The Times noted that South Korea’s spy agency “has in the past been accused of leaking shocking news about their isolated and secretive neighbour to unsettle its government or divert attention from domestic scandals.”

On the other hand, the NIS was right about the the 2013 execution of Mr. Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was Kim’s uncle and formerly served as the country’s de facto No. 2 official. Spies add that while they can’t reveal their sources this time around, they trusted their information enough to present it to the South Korean parliament.

Despite the uncertainty, there is a clear precedent that suggests Kim would carry out such brutal executions of those who are perceived to be a threat or who Kim wants to make an example. (Hyon was reportedly executed for falling asleep during a meeting.)

The Wall Street Journal reports that these grisly executions are meant to instill fear and discourage people from ever stepping out of line.

“They’re saying, ‘This is what happens to the senior officials, this could happen to you,'” Michael Madden, editor of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, told the Journal.

Hyon Yong CholREUTERS/Sergei KarpukhinSenior North Korean military officer Hyon Yong Chol (R, front) attends the 4th Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) in Moscow April 16, 2015.

Elias Groll at Foreign Policy magazine made a similar argument. He wrote: “Why use such a weapon [in this case, an anti-aircraft gun]? 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-calibre machine gun fire is one the crowd will not forget anytime soon.”

And it wouldn’t be the first time North Korea executed someone by firing squad. There are also reports that Kim executed two of his uncle’s top aides in 2013 using this method.

Adding to the plausibility of the execution story is the evidence that suggests North Korea has executed people with anti-aircraft guns before. Recent satellite imagery of North Korea appears to show people standing in front of anti-aircraft machine guns, waiting to be executed.

The images, which were included in a U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea report, are from October and were taken at a military training area near Pyongyang.

In the end, although the execution story is more plausible that some of the crazy-sounding news that comes out of North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom is so opaque that it might be a while before we know for sure whether or not the latest tale is true.

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