Dramatic, public and brutal has become the modus operandi for executions in North Korea. If reports leaking from the secretive kingdom are to be believed, top officials have been killed by anti-aircraft weapons, mortars, and even flame throwers.
Defense Minister Hyong Yong-choi was the latest casualty of North Korea’s internal war against its top brass. According to South Korean intelligence, Hyong was killed in late April after falling asleep during an event and not carrying out instructions. The method of execution chosen by North Korea’s draconian leadership? A round from anti-aircraft guns in front of hundreds of onlookers. Hyong followed in the grim fate of the deputy defense minister, who was killed in 2012, reportedly by mortar rounds shot off at close range.
Some of the most unbelievable execution stories have been proven false—Kim Jong Un’s uncle was likely not killed by a vicious pack of hungry dogs—but brutal purges of top officials have been a key strategy the leadership uses to keep a handle on power. And with a recent satellite view of a North Korean military training camp, these tactics may well turn out to be true.
In late April, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea uncovered “a ghastly sight” at a military firing range: analyzed satellite images showed six anti-aircraft gun systems being fired upon a small target at short range last October. The group assessing the bizarre scene decided it was an execution that had been watched by high-level officials who’d driven in from the capital of Pyongyang.
“Anyone who has witnessed the damage one single U.S. .50 caliber round does to the human body will shudder just trying to imagine a battery of 24 heavy machine guns being fired at human beings. Bodies would be nearly pulverized,” the report reads. “The gut-wrenching viciousness of such an act would make ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ sound like a gross understatement.”
The victims of this brutality are unknown, but there is no shortage of past examples. In 2012, a shocked international press reported that a military officer was sentenced to death for drinking during the official mourning period for Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. The method of execution was reportedly by short-range mortar firing squad. According to a source talking to South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, it was ordered that “no trace of him [be left] behind, down to his hair.” The impact of the mortar thought to be used in North Korea can kill someone within a 17-yard diameter of its target.
In April, South Korea reported that an official who worked with Kim’s uncle was reportedly killed by flamethrower. A few months earlier, an investigation by underground North Korean publication Rimjin-gang looked into similar rumors. “It is difficult to verify the information at this point,” the author wrote, “but it is said that a rocket grenade was used for their execution instead of a rifle, and the remains of their bodies were incinerated by a flamethrower.”
North Korea employees a fear-mongering tactic of constant government purges. Despite hopes that this would let up under new leadership, the young Kim Jong Un instead began his reign with a massacre of military officers and hasn’t slowed down a tradition of top-level killing. According to the BBC, South Korean intelligence estimates at least one senior office has been executed per week.
It’s not entirely clear how much can be taken as fact from these stories.
Information escapes North Korea in a trickle and many of the news reports rely heavily on information from South Korean intelligence, which is thought to exaggerate its findings. There is little possibility of fact-checking within the Hermit Kingdom.
“If all the rumors of purges over the last five years were true, then the parade review platform in Pyongyang would be desolate,” wrote North Korean Leadership Watch’s Michael Madden in Foreign Policy about the rumors of dramatic executions. “Still, amid a cytoplasm of deception, disinformation, and misunderstanding, Pyongyang palace gossip contains a nucleus of truth.”
The most sensational of these rumors came in December 2013, when Kim Jong-un reportedly executed his second-in-command, his uncle Jang Song-thaek. His death sparked rumors that he had been stripped naked and fed to hungry dogs. This turned out to be unlikely, but the real method was likely brutal nonetheless.