Did North Korea really execute its army chief of staff?

Published: February 17, 2016

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (right) alongside Ri Yong-gil, who South Korean media reported as having been executed. PHOTO: AFP

Out of the deafening silence of North Korea’s state-run media and soundproofed borders, emerge stories that go viral and take on mythological proportions. In the 18th century, when technology was not yet sufficient enough to deliver news swiftly across far distances, tales of distant lands would change hands amidst the chatter of travellers in the marketplace and taverns. Similarly, stories coming out of North Korea rely largely on hearsay and speculation. Or on the media of its neighbouring countries, which somehow, based solely on proximity, are able to decipher information.

The echoes of distant screams in North Korea are reflected through the media of South Korea. The reach of telecommunications, internet and all forms of media in North Korea is limited to the country’s borders. Unconfirmed reports originating in South Korea, and repeated by the western media, tell us that Kim Jong-Un, the supreme leader of North Korea has executed the Army Chief of Staff, General Ri Yong-Gil, on charges of “conspiracy” and corruption.

However, the South Korean online newspaper Daily NK disputed this and reported on February 12, that Ri Yong-Gil had merely been arrested and not executed. The Daily NK is a news source focused primarily on reporting and publicising North Korea’s human rights violations. According to the paper’s president Park In-ho, the Daily NK “sees the people of North Korea as separate from their regime, and dreams of… peaceful unification based democracy and the realisation of human rights”.

The paper’s sources of information are undercover informants living in North Korea.

The Daily NK also published a report on the unreliability of mainstream South Korean media coverage on North Korea. Participants of the “Current Reporting on Inter-Korean Relations” panel in August, 2015, in Seoul, discussed the increasingly poor quality of reporting by the South Korean national broadcasting service Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and the country’s mainstream paper, Chosun Ilbo. The deterioration in journalistic standards was attributed to regime-change in South Korea, from progressive to conservative, in which the “expert reporter policy” was done away with, according to Kim Jung-Hwan of the KBS. As a result, a great deal of inter-Korean reporting was based on unreliable sources.

Australian documentary-maker Anna Broinowski, who travelled to North Korea in 2013 to meet filmmakers well versed in the art of propaganda cinema, stated in her June 2015 article in The Guardian, that the “internet-free vacuum” in North Korea, has been filled by “western bloggers, intelligence agencies and the 24-hour news cycle”, and that in the media coverage on North Korea, “sensationalism beats truth in the social media economy”.

Even in the so-called ‘democracy’ such as Pakistan, we are familiar with the concept of how sensationalism, polarisation and stereotyping by the Pakistani media leads to a two-dimensional and overly simplistic understanding of local issues. It only creates misunderstandings and does nothing to bring closer to resolving the problem at hand.

It may be worthwhile to note that reports of General Ri Yong-Gil’s execution began to circulate on February 10th , the same day that South Korea announced it would be pulling its companies out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex – a mutual factory zone – which South Korea was led to believe was being used to develop long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s nuclear test on January 6th and its satellite launch on February 7th did little to soothe these suspicions. This has led to a vicious cycle of escalating tensions, with North Korea responding by expelling South Korean citizens and threatening to militarise the industrial park and South Korea cutting off water and power supplies to the zone and seeking US assistance in setting up a missile defence system.

According to the BBC, North Korean expert Michael Madden pointed out that when chiefs of staff are relieved of their duties in North Korea, they are either demoted, placed in different roles, or put under house arrest. Many senior North Korean officials have ‘disappeared’ in the past, for lengthy periods, only to re-emerge later. There were reports in 2012 that the then Chief of Staff, General Ri Hong Yo, had been executed by the regime. Later the same year, these reports were disputed and it was alleged that Ri Hong Yo was still alive and under house arrest.

Despite these facts, one cannot deny that the ‘news’ emerging from North Korea has one constant pattern that binds it together: the sheer brutality and lurid detail of its content. Three years ago, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un announced the execution of his own uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, on charges of attempting to overthrow the state. Jang Song-Thaek had been a mentor to Jong-Un. The world was shocked by subsequent reports of the senior statesman being stripped naked and thrown into a cage full of dogs – reports that were later confirmed to be false.

Due to the information void, it is difficult to filter myth from reality. The only option is to put together the clues and make deductions. The suddenness of arrests, disappearances and executions, reflect a temperament prone to drastic upheaval and paranoia. In an empire run ruthlessly using an iron fist, the opposition, in order to stand any chance of success would be equally ruthless if not more, and would rely largely on stealth. In such a scenario, Kim Jong-Un would do everything in his power to prevent being caught sleeping or with his guard down. Again, due to a dearth of verified information, it is difficult to say whether the supreme leader is unstable or whether his unpredictability is carefully calculated.

One thing is for certain, the United Nations Human Rights Council produced a report in February, 2014, that confirmed that the human rights violations committed by Kim Jong-Un’s regime were the most severe in the contemporary world — details of which are provided on the Human Rights Watch website. Furthermore, the UN has repeatedly called for the Security Council to act and refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on grounds of human rights violations. Although there has been a great deal of talk but no action against North Korea, it is only a matter of time before Kim Jong-Un is taken to task by the ICC. Michael Kirby, the former chair of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, reportedly told CNN that “the last chapter is yet to be written”.

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Ali Bhutto

Ali Bhutto

The writer is a staffer at The Express Tribune.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.