By Ryan Haag, CIB Asia/Eurasia Desk
Analytical question: Has the stability of the North Korean government increased in 2016?
A recent report from the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s spy agency, indicated that public executions have increased this year under Kim Jong-un, compared to last year. It can be stated with low confidence that the stability of the North Korean government has the potential to be negatively impacted by the executions.
The report also comes at a time when, according to the NIS, Kim Jong-un has increased security measures –including constantly changing his schedule and importing explosive detectors– after the revelation last month by South Korean sources of an ‘emergency’ assassination plan against him. Additionally, at the end of August, Typhoon Lionrock ravaged the northeastern portion of North Korea, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands more. Kim Jong-un has not yet visited that area, reportedly due to fears of attempts at his life. The defection of North Korean deputy ambassador Thae Yong-ho from London also occurred this past August.
On October 19, 2016, NIS chief Lee Byung-ho told members of the South Korean National Assembly Intelligence Committee in Seoul, South Korea, that 64 state-sponsored public executions have taken place in North Korea so far this year, a reported twofold increase from 2015. State-sponsored usually refers to punishment of crimes against the regime of Kim Jong-un. However, reliable statistics on the number of similar executions last year are unavailable. The announcement came as the National Assembly Intelligence Committee was performing an ‘audit’ of the agency. Those executed were allegedly labeled as ‘traitors’.
The NIS stressed that the executions were part of growing instability within the regime, possibly as the result of United Nations (UN) sanctions following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January. However, it could also be a range of other factors, including the inexperience of Kim Jong-un and subsequent preventive measures to quell discontent. The increase in executions is noteworthy, considering that defections have also reportedly increased this year. At this point the correlation between executions and defections, if any, is unclear.
Although executions are designed to maintain stability, rather than take it away, hence their public nature, initial indications are that they are having unintended consequences. The only source of information for these executions is the NIS, which brings into question their accuracy and evaluative framework. The NIS has made errors in the past regarding possible executions, specifically that of General Ri Yong-gil earlier this year. Although this cannot be a sole indicator of accuracy, skepticism should be adhered to when evaluating the accuracy of the executions. Therefore, I can establish with low confidence that the executions have a potentially negative impact on the stability of the government pending further evaluation, and my original forecast that stability has slightly increased since 2015 remains unchanged.
Anonymous (2016). “North Korea executed 64 in public this year as Kim feels insecure: Seoul spy agency”, Japan Times, 20 October.
Armstrong, Jeremy (2016). “Kim Jong Un orders public execution of 64 North Korean ‘traitors’ this year alone”, Mirror, 20 October.
Cavanaugh, Darien (2016). “South Korea reveals plan to assassinate Kim Jong-un to avoid nuclear war”, Inquistr, 24 September.
Shim, Elizabeth (2016). “Public executions on the rise in North Korea as Kim Jong-un worries about safety”. UPI, 20 October.