North Korea recently executed its defense chief and three other high-ranking officials, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
If confirmed, the executions would be the latest in a series of purges in Pyongyang that raise concerns about the stability of the Kim Jong Un regime.
In a closed-door door parliamentary committee meeting Wednesday, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers that North Korea’s Armed Forces Minister Hyon Yong Chol was shot and killed by an anti-aircraft gun as hundreds of people looked on in Pyongyang in late April.
Among the reasons cited for the apparent execution: disloyalty, insubordination and, specifically, falling asleep at a military event that North Korean leader Kim was also attending.
Three others executed
Seoul’s spy agency said three other high-ranking officials were also executed, including Ma Won Chun, North Korea's chief architect of new infrastructure who was pictured last year standing with Kim at the opening of a new amusement park in Pyongyang.
This is the latest of a number of reported purges that have occurred since Kim took power after his father's death in 2011.
South Korea Unification ministry spokesman Lim Byong-chul said Seoul is closely monitoring the situation to the North.
“Our government views that North Korea is promoting the solidification of Kim Jong Un's sole leadership by creating an atmosphere of terror through executions. But they are paying attention to how this type of politics of terror will influence North Korea's system over the long term,” Lim said.
Because North Korea is an authoritarian, closed society where the media is rigidly controlled, it is difficult to independently confirm Seoul’s assertion that the executions took place and to determine if there is a serious power struggle or instability inside the Kim regime.
Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, said these recent purges seem to be, at least in the short term, helping Kim consolidate power.
“It is difficult to view Kim Jong Un’s regime as unstable during this process, but it can be assessed that it is a way to bring Kim Jong Un’s power over the military through shock tactics,” professor Kim said.
He also said before the defense minister was purged, General Hyon had been a close military adviser to the young North Korean leader.
Last month South Korea's spy agency said 15 other senior officials were executed this year as punishment for challenging Kim’s authority.
In 2013, the North Korean leader executed his uncle and mentor Jang Song Thaek, and a number of other officials close to him, for attempting to overthrow the state, according to the North Korea state news agency.
VOA Seoul producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.