It is not surprising that this week's reported death of a top North Korean official in a car accident immediately led to speculation of foul play.
The announcement of the death of Kim Yang Gon, the 73-year-old high-ranking party official who was in charge of the North's relations with South Korea, raises some suspicions. He reportedly died in a car crash early Tuesday morning in Pyongyang, a city where traffic is sparse. The state news agency gave no other details, but called him Kim Jong Un's “closest comrade and a solid revolutionary partner.”
Those skeptical of his death's explanation point to the timing of the announcement. The reported accident occurred soon after talks with South Korea collapsed when Seoul refused Pyongyang’s demand to resume a tourism project that once provided Pyongyang with tens of millions of dollars each year.
In secretive, repressive North Korea it is almost impossible to separate fact from conjecture.
However, in this case analysts say the official praise and the decision to give Kim Yang Gon a state funeral indicate his unexpected demise was likely an accident.
But his death fits a recent pattern of purges that have occurred under North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un who this week marks his fourth year in power.
Kim Jong Un purges
In April, South Korea's National Intelligence Service said the 32-year-old North Korean leader so far had executed about 70 mostly aging officials who were close to his father Kim Jong Il and replaced them with younger aides more loyal to him.
As Kim Jong Un moved to consolidate his own power following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University in Seoul said most observers expected the young leader to slowly ease out the old guard into some type of comfortable retirement.
“However few if any observer expected that Kim Jong Un would remove the old officials, his father’s officials that fast and with such brutal decisiveness,” said Lankov.
There were a number of high profile executions reported in the last four years.
In December 2013, Kim's uncle and mentor Jang Song Thaek was executed for alleged treason and there were reports many of his relatives were also put to death.
In May of this year the country’s Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol was executed supposedly for sleeping during a meeting and complaining about the young ruler.
Although some of the gory rumors associated with these executions, such as his uncle was fed to a pack of wild dogs and that his defense chief was killed with an anti-aircraft gun, have either been refuted or still have not been verified.
A number of other officials suddenly disappeared from the public eye without any official explanation.
There was speculation earlier this year that Choe Ryong Hae, who was Kim’s emissary to China and Russia, had been executed when he was omitted from the funeral list of a high level official. Later South Korea’s spy agency said Choe had been sent to a re-education facility. But this week his name appeared on the funeral committee list for Kim Yang Gon indicating he may be back in the leader’s good graces.
North Korean instability
There have been reports that several North Korean officials were fleeing the country for fear of being purged by the North Korean leader.
North Korea analyst Bruce Bechtol, at Angelo State University in Texas said the high number of purges in the last four years points to continued instability within the Kim Jong Un regime.
“When he took over I said I didn’t think he would last more than five years. We’re not there yet. But one thing that is for sure is he certainly has not consolidated his power yet,” said Bechtol.
Other North Korea watchers like Chung-in Moon at Seoul’s Yonsei University argue that Kim Jong Un has solidified his rule in part by placing loyalists around him.
“Kim Jong Un is both reigning and ruling and that’s why he announced he will be having the seventh party congress of the Korea’s Workers Party sometime in May next year,” said Moon.
High-level government purges have a long history in North Korea.
Kim Jong Un's grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, removed pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions within the senior leadership in the years after the 1950-53 Korean War.
His father Kim Jong Il executed about 10 people in his first years in power. That is a far fewer number than Kim Jong Un has reportedly executed, but his father was groomed to take over the leadership for years and had concentrated power and placed loyalists in key positions prior to becoming supreme leader.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.