North Korea has executed its military chief on corruption charges, a South Korean news agency said Wednesday, citing a source familiar with the nation’s affairs.
The Yonhap news agency said Gen. Ri Yong-gil was executed this month. It said he was charged with, among other crimes, pursuing personal gain.
Ri was the chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army. He stopped appearing in public last April, North Korea watchers reported at that time. They noted that another general had replaced Ri at official functions.
The news came on a day South Korea said it would shutter a set of factories inside North Korea in protest of Pyongyang’s rocket launch Sunday.
Seoul said Wednesday it will suspend joint production at the Kaesong industrial park, where North Korean laborers assemble garments, watches and other products for South Korean companies. Its closure would remove the most visible symbol of cross-border cooperation between the two Koreas.
Bloomberg News quoted an unnamed government official as saying Seoul will set up a task force to oversee the safe return of South Korean workers from the site, which as of last year housed 124 South Korean companies and employed about 54,000 North Korean workers.
“This is a strong message to North Korea and a rallying cry for more international sanctions and pressure against Pyongyang,” said Chang Yong Seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, in comments reported by Bloomberg.
The United Nations Security Council is currently discussing tougher sanctions against the North to punish it for violating prior demands to halt its nuclear and missile programs.
Meanwhile, analysts say the execution of Ri shows that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un may still fear internal challenges to his rule, despite a series of purges and executions by the regime.
“This shows that Kim Jong Un is very nervous about the armed forces,” Yonhap quoted a source saying. “It also shows his reign of terror continues.
In a bid to consolidate his power, Kim has purged and executed a range of senior officials. These include his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek; the head of the army’s operations, Gen. Pyon In Son; and Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol. A lurid version of Hyon’s killing said that he was blasted to pieces in front of a high-caliber anti-aircraft gun.
There was no comment from North Korea on either matter Wednesday. One news item released by its state news agency focused on a surge of patriotic pride following the launch of a satellite atop Sunday’s rocket.