On August 30, 2016, The Chosun Ilbo, a news agency well known for publishing privately concocted “fakeries”, citing its anonymous sources as per its usual ritual, reported on North Korea’s recent public execution that involved the use of heavy machinery. This time, under “private eyes” at the Military Academy, the former Agriculture Minister, Hwang Mina, and a certain Lee Chong Jin, who, according to the source, was “well knowledgeable in the affairs of North Korea”, and “held a high post in the Ministry of Education, possibly at the ministerial level” were allegedly shot dead, execution-style, using anti-aircraft machine guns.
Why were they executed? According to the publication, in June of this year, Hwan was removed from office for having passed instructions that contradicted Kim Jong-un’s wishes. During a meeting which he attended together with Kim, Lee allegedly fell asleep, after which he was unluckily arrested on the spot and immediately convicted of corruption, then “liquidated”.
However, South Korean government authorities would neither deny nor confirm that the execution actually took place. As reported by Yonhap, which cited an unnamed source in the government, there was “no evidence confirming these reports. They had to be verified.” This source also alluded to the fact that the DPRK does not have a single Ministry of Education (there is the Ministry of Higher Education, and a separate Ministry of Secondary Education), and neither one of them was headed by a man named Lee Jong-jin.
Let us pay attention and so not repeat the plot – the sensational story of the anti-aircraft machine gun execution of an official who had fallen asleep at a meeting in the presence of Kim Jong-un was exaggerated a year or two ago in relation to the defense minister’s disappearance. By the way, his current whereabouts and situation are matters yet to be disclosed.
Finally, let us recall that the demonization of North Korea is being systematically carried out following certain patterns. Reports on North Korea always must comply with the all-too-familiar portrayal of it being a “country of Darkness”. However, the narrations always have to include stories about numerous savage executions, which have become an indispensable part of how this country’s image is reported.
But how do we evaluate the likelihood that this news is not a “fakery”? How do we determine, in general, the authenticity of yet another “execution by firing squad” story? A young marshal always possesses quite an assertive temperament, and this can cost some representatives of the elite their positions, and possibly their lives. Moreover, there are 50-50 chances that the narration that yet another official has been repressed, or even executed, is authentic. However, this is about the alleged execution itself, rather than the circumstances surrounding it, in which the anti-North Korean media appear to be preoccupied, constantly displaying images of flamethrowers, firing squads and anti-aircraft guns.
Several factors will be instrumental in verifying whether the official was indeed executed. This may be through the KCNA official statement, which indicates that the individual in question “turns out to be” a factionalist, a corrupt official and demoralizer. Either that, or the official starts ‘disappearing’ from official events and publications, with phenomena like photo editing and cutting him out of the films still featuring him becoming the order of the day.
In the remainder of the cases, the likelihood that the official just fell into disgrace remains. It is more than likely that, after working a couple of years as an ordinary collective farmer, he will pop up again to resume his previous post, or assume a little lower official position, considering the fact that the list of those who have undergone similar periods of temporary disgrace is inexhaustible.
It is worth remembering that during recent years, South Korean and Japanese media have “buried” quite a number of the Pyongyang elite’s representatives, including Army Chief of Staff, Lee Young-Gil, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Li Su Yong and Chief Architect, Ma Won-jung. These all fell into disgrace for some time, only to be then “resurrected”. Nevertheless, the story of how they were repressed was broadcast in mind-blowing detail.
The last of these “living dead” is Han Kwang-san, who is responsible for financial matters. In March 2015, he disappeared out of sight. Immediately after his leaving the public scene, South Korean journalists, citing the intelligence service, began reporting news about his execution. However, eight months later, he finally made a public appearance in the company of Kim Jong-un.
Attention should also be focused on the direct source of information being cited. In cases where there are citations on “an anonymous source that is well-knowledgeab
Another method of verifying the reports is finding out if the official news is carrying any such information. If the news story is absent on the Yonhap Agency website, or if the South Korean International Radio website fails to report it, then this is a definite sign that the reports are largely unverified.
In conclusion, it would be most apt to recall the old Soviet ‘Radio Yerevan Jokes’ anecdote, in which the question is asked: Is it true that yesterday, a citizen by the name of Sundukyan won the Volga Car Lottery? The response: The story is quite true. However, it is actually not Sundukyan, but one Ivanov, who, instead of winning, lost, not the lottery, but on the cards, and not a car, but a mere bicycle.
Konstantin Asmolov, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”