UPDATE: Multiple reports on May 10, 2016 cited North Korean state media as confirming that not only is Ri Yong-gil still alive, he is now a member of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party, as well as the Central Military Commission.
North Korea has reportedly executed its army chief of staff, continuing a series of rumored executions, purges, and disappearances of top political and military officials under the regime of young leader Kim Jong-un.
Ri Yong-gil, who was chief of the Korean People's Army (KPA) General Staff, was supposedly executed earlier this month for corruption and factional conspiracy, according to Yonhap and other South Korean media outlets. An anonymous source described as being "familiar with North Korean affairs" also told Reuters that Ri had been executed. The source reportedly declined to comment on how the information about the execution had been obtained due to the sensitivity of the matter.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service declined to comment, and VICE News could not independently verify the reports.
Michael Madden, a North Korea expert who maintains a website devoted to tracking the country's top leaders, said that while Ri had certainly lost his job as army chief of staff — his replacement was shown recently in state media — reports about his execution should be viewed with skepticism.
"I don't know if he has been executed — that's a little bit much," he said.
"This is sort of a process," he added, noting that several purportedly executed North Korean officials have reappeared weeks or months after vanishing from public view. "They disappear but they come back, they turn up working somewhere else. It's not entirely out of the realm of possibly Ri Yong-gil has another job. We'll know in a month or two."
Madden noted that while Ri had held the army chief of staff post for more than two years after being appointed to the post by Kim in August 2013, the job's turnover rate has historically been high. A previous military chief, Ri Yong-ho, was publicly removed from this post in 2012 and his now said to be under house arrest. Several others have occupied and vacated the position, Madden said, but none are believed to have been executed.
"There's always a possibility [Ri Yong-gil] might turn up somewhere else," Madden said. "It's a job that's switched five or six times at this point. Each time there was a chief that disappeared, except for Ri Yong-ho, they turned up in other jobs."
The rumored execution comes less than a week after North Korea launched a long-range rocket carrying a satellite into orbit, and about a month after the country's fourth nuclear test, which it claimed involved a hydrogen bomb. Both actions have provoked the ire of the international community, and will likely lead to the imposition of additional sanctions on the hermetic regime.
Madden noted that the removal of Ri Yong-ho occurred in July 2012, just three months after a failed rocket launch. The recent rocket launch on Sunday appeared to be successful, and North Korea's satellite is now in orbit, though it does not appear to be functional — the launch is widely believed to have been used as a cover for testing banned ballistic missile technology. It's unclear if Ri Yong-gil's sudden disappearance is at all linked to the launch, or if it's simply part of the usual political machinations in Pyongyang.
The North's military leadership has been in a state of perpetual flux since Kim took power after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011. The regime rarely issues public announcements related to purges or executions of high-level officials, with the notable exception of Jang Song-thaek, the younger Kim's powerful uncle, who was executed — allegedly for corruption — in 2013.
Last May, North Korean Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol was reportedly executed by an anti-aircraft gun at a firing range for disloyalty — he was said to have fallen asleep during an event presided by Kim. The previous month, South Korea's spy agency said that 15 senior officials had already been executed that year.
In December, one of Kim's top aides and a senior official in the ruling Korean Workers Party was also killed in a suspicious car accident in Pyongyang.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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