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Reports About North Korea Executing 15 Senior Officials Might Be Bullshit

As the latest report from a South Korean news agency shows, it can often be difficult to tell fact from fiction in the Hermit Kingdom.
Imagen por KCNA/Reuters

Did Kim Jong-un order all North Korean men to sport his sculpted mini-bouffant hairstyle? Did he put his powerful uncle to death by feeding him to a pack of starving dogs? And has the Supreme Leader really purged the nation's top brass of dead wood by executing 15 senior officials already in 2015?

The answers to the first two questions are definitely no. The third is still yet to be determined, but South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on the alleged executions this week, citing two South Korean lawmakers who attended a briefing by the country's National Intelligence Service.


Michael Madden, publisher of NK Leadership Watch, a site devoted to research and analysis on North Korea's political and military elite, told VICE News that rumors about "the attrition problem" in the country's senior leadership have been bubbling up since last fall. Madden said he has received widely differing reports from sources saying hundreds of officials from the country's Workers' Party have been dismissed, reassigned, incarcerated, or executed.

"They don't execute everybody, because if they did the state would cease to function," Madden said. "But on the other hand, this is how you do business in North Korea, and Kim Jong-un has an itchy trigger finger."

Related: Cracking the Hermit Kingdom: The Strange Future of North Korean Diplomacy

Madden, who is also a contributor at 38 North, a North Korea analysis website affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, noted that South Korean intelligence reports about happenings in the so-called Hermit Kingdom are not always reliable.

"South Korean intelligence is a 50/50 bet because it's hard to say sometimes whether they're getting it from electronic sources or human sources," Madden said.

The latest claims about the executed senior leaders could turn out to be true, or they could be yet another case where unverified information from second or thirdhand sources enters the media echo chamber, gets boosted on Facebook and Twitter, and ends up being treated as undisputed fact.


In addition to the 15 officials, Yonhap reported that four members of the Unhasu orchestra — a group that used to feature Kim's wife Ri Sol-ju as a singer — were summarily shot to death by the state in March on spying charges.

Another rumor about the storied orchestra began to circulate in early 2013, alleging that Kim's ex-girlfriend Hyon Song-wol and several other pop stars were executed by firing squad for making porn videos. The regime repeatedly denied the reports.

"There have been a whole lot of strange rumors about the Unhasu orchestra," Madden said. "These gossip items — sometimes there comes a point where they're recycling them."

Related: Meet the Men and Women Who Help Rule North Korea From the Shadows

According to Madden, the media will sometimes report that high-level North Korean officials have been executed when they briefly disappear from public view. The reportedly dead officials will then turn up again weeks or months later.

"Sometimes [the officials] have better things to do than walk around with Kim Jong-un and visit a fish farm or talk to schoolgirls or whatever he is doing," he said. "Some of the mid-level senior officials also get sent away for revolutionization [sic] or political reeducation. It's not uncommon to have these officials disappear for a short time to get reeducated before they get put in another job."

The rivalry between the two Koreas also cannot be underestimated in terms of overall propaganda efforts, and both sides use unverifiable information to undermine each other.

"Is it in South Korea's interest to print antagonizing information about the North and the other way around?" Madden asked. "When you have antagonists and enemies, of course you're going to put nasty information out there about each other.

"The South Koreans were saying back into the '50s the regime was going to collapse — it's been going on for 20, 30, 40 years," he added. "This is just one of those tiny stories that is part of a long history."

The rumors and reports, of course, are sometimes anchored in truth. Kim really did have his uncle and former political advisor, Jang Song-thaek, executed in late 2013 on treason and corruption charges. But it was later determined — after scores of international media outlets ran with the story — that the hungry dogs anecdote was likely satire.

"Some of these rumors we read about are either based on a reality that is either happening or happened in the past," said Madden. "Whether the specifics line up is a different question altogether."