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S. Korea Investigates Media Reports of N. Korean Execution Over Currency Reform

South Korea's government says it is looking into media reports that a North Korean official has been executed in connection with last year's failed reform of the North's currency. The episode once again highlights the shortage of reliable information from the secretive North.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency cited unnamed sources Thursday who say senior North Korean party official Pak Nam Ki was executed by firing squad in Pyongyang last week. Pak spearheaded last November's surprise revaluation of North Korea's currency, now widely seen as an economic debacle.

The Yonhap report says Pak is now being described in North Korea as having "conspired to infiltrate the ranks of revolutionaries to destroy the national economy."

Brian Myers is a specialist in North Korean media at South Korea's Dongseo University. He says although the report of Pak's execution remains unconfirmed, it does have a level of credibility.

"Until January, he was routinely mentioned as one of Kim Jong Il's escorts on his so-called on-the-spot guidance tours," said Brian Myers. "And since then, we've heard no mention of him. Whenever an official like that disappears from sight, so to speak, you can be pretty certain that a purge has taken place. And I do think that a failure of this magnitude really would call for his execution."

Last year, with no advance notice, North Korea declared its old currency worthless and limited the amount of notes its citizens could trade in for the new currency. Economists say the move destroyed the savings of millions of people who rely on small market trading for basic items like rice and corn. They say economic activity ground to a halt and food prices soared, while the new currency's value sank like a stone.

Unconfirmed reports from the intensely secretive North have described confusion, anger, and even occasional instances of rioting by disgruntled citizens. Pyongyang reportedly acknowledged the reform as a failure in a memo to its embassies abroad, and has rolled back some of the restrictions it introduced last year.

Myers says Pyongyang has executed officials in the past as scapegoats for such failures as the country's late 1990s famine. Back then, such officials were vilified in official media. Nowadays, says Myers, the North turns people like Pak Nam Ki into "non-persons."

"So I would imagine that what's happening now is that party officials are themselves spreading word of his execution at party meetings and workplaces," he said. "And this is in line with the regime's practice in the past - when it has propaganda that it wants its own people to know about, but does not want the outside world to know about, it does it through party meetings and through people speaking at workplaces and so on."

Myers says the North Korean media does not discuss the currency reform. The topic may be too delicate, because it could foster a perception the totalitarian government is willing to relent in the face of public anger.

"If the masses begin to get the idea that the regime is dancing to their tune instead of the other way around, I think that could actually lead to the people becoming even more rebellious," said Myers.

North Korea experts say Pyongyang needs markets to compensate for its failure to provide necessities to its citizens, but is unwilling to let an emerging capitalist class threaten its ironclad control.