Head of North Korea’s secret police sacked for corruption and ‘human rights abuses’, Seoul says
Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has executed or purged a slew of high-level government officials in what the South Korean government has described as a ‘reign of terror’
North Korea has dismissed its minister of state security, a key aide to the reclusive state’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, South Korea said on Friday, in what a high-profile defector said would be another sign of a “crack in the elite” in Pyongyang if true.
Kim Won-hong was removed from office as head of the feared “bowibu”, or secret police, in mid-January apparently on charges of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses, Jeong Joon-hee, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman, said, confirming media reports.
Jeong did not say how the South knew of Kim’s ouster. But he said there could have been further dismissals in the North where the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Organisation and Guidance Department was investigating the ministry of state security.
“There is always a possibility that purges continue as part of constantly strengthening power,” he told a briefing, adding punishment for Kim could be more severe depending on the outcome of the investigation, but he had been dismissed and demoted from the rank of general to major general.
Kim Jong-un became leader in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, and his consolidation of power has included purges and executions of top officials, South Korean officials have said.
Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to London who has defected to the South, said he was not surprised by the news.
“I cannot confirm if the reports are true or not, but this kind of power struggle is quite normal in North Korean history. Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s style of control is always one of collective surveillance that checks the power of each organisation.
“Kim Jong-un has killed too many high officials and there are a lot of complaints and dissent amongst the high elite because of it. If the demotion of Kim Won Hong is really true, then that’s another sign of a crack in the North Korean elite group.”
Kim Won-hong had survived repeated purges since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011 which have seen four of the North’s five highest-ranking military officers purged.
The spy agency chief, in post since 2012, played a key role in arresting and executing Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, once known as the number two power holder, in 2013 on charges of treason.
The North’s leader has reportedly killed more than 100 military, party and government officials, including Jang and Hyon Yong-chol, a former defence chief who was put to death in 2015.
The South’s spy agency said he was killed with an anti-aircraft gun.
Last year, North Korea’s vice premier for education was executed for not keeping his posture upright at a public event, South Korea said.
The security ministry maintains surveillance over the general public, prosecutes dissenters and operates camps for political prisoners.
South Korea has a spotty record of tracking developments in North Korea as information about the secretive, authoritarian state is often impossible to confirm.
There has been no confirmation of the dismissal in North Korea’s official media.
Choe Ryong-hae, a close aide to Kim Jong-un, was believed to have been briefly banished to a rural collective farm for re-education in 2015, but he regained his political footing during a rare congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party last year.
In a New Year’s speech, leader Kim Jong-un went out of his way to apologise over his failure to better serve the people.
“He is likely to conduct numerous purges and overhauls, shifting responsibility for poor past performances to bureaucrats this year,” the South’s Institute for National Security Strategy said in a report.
NK News, a specialist North Korea reporting service, said state media only reported three official appearances by Kim Won-hong last year, the last of them in June, down from 32 in 2013, indicating that he had “appeared to fall out of favour”.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse