The report that Korean People's Army General Hyon Yong-ch'ol, Minister of the People's Armed Forces, has been shot for insubordination – by an anti-aircraft gun and before a crowd of officials, no less – raises troubling questions about both halves of the divided Korean Peninsula.
While there still is no confirmation regarding the purge from Pyongyang, South Korean National Assemblyman Sin Kyong-min, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that Seoul's National Intelligence Service (NIS) has multiple sources for its claims.
The scepticism of many analysts is less about the reported execution than the timing and motivation behind its sudden revelation. Though Hyon is supposed to have been executed on 30 April, the news emerged only on 13 May, a fortnight in which NIS appears to have suffered two intelligence embarrassments.
On 29 April, the NIS told National Assembly members the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, 'was highly likely to visit Moscow' for the 9 May World War II Victory Day celebrations, only to be proved wrong the following day. Then Pyongyang appeared to take Seoul by surprise by testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on 8 May. Although North Korean state media suggested the SLBM is operational, it appears to have been an ejection test from a submerged barge and the missile only flew a short distance.
South Korean President Park called the test a 'serious security challenge' at the National Security Council meeting she convened on 12 May, and she probably then approved the NIS leak to the National Assembly about Hyon's execution as part of an effort to alleviate public concerns.
For sceptics, releasing the news about a spectacular purge in the North looks like an NIS attempt to rehabilitate its reputation. It could also be intended to shock the international community in order to garner support at the UN and elsewhere in case Seoul decides to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang.
But if Hyon has indeed been executed, what are the implications?
Some analysts say the recent increase in purges is a sign of instability in the North. Others argue that Kim remains in firm control because the problems of planning collective action against him are insurmountable. Another group suggest improvements in the economy indicate the regime is becoming stronger.
I see no signs of any rebellion against Kim and I'm sceptical about internal instability at this time. I believe the leader has several advantages in managing the dictatorship in order to remain in power: his vast, established institutions of repression; the difficulties of organising collective action against him; and the array of dilemmas someone in the elite faces in trying to persuade anyone to join a rebel faction.
Hyon was probably more vulnerable than many realised. A career soldier, he enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the military, which he joined in 1966. He was elected to the Supreme People's Assembly in 2009, and the next year was promoted to four-star general and elected to the party's Central Committee. He was advanced to vice marshal and Chief of the General Staff in July 2012, the same day his predecessor, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, was stripped of his positions and disappeared. About a week and a half later, Hyon became a vice chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, only to lose one of his general's stars after three months. In March 2013, he was back on track as a candidate member of the Politburo, but two months later he again lost a star and was reassigned to Kangwon Province, far from the seat of power.
Hyon appeared to have redeemed himself when he regained the star and was appointed Minister of the People's Armed Forces in June 2014. Rehabilitation seemed complete in September with his election to the National Defence Commission. As recently as April, he was in Moscow for an international security conference.
Kim needs professionals to run his military, and Hyon was a survivor with proven ability to 'reform' and play the North's brutal political game of redemption and rehabilitation. That his career may have ended with him paying the ultimate price demonstrates that even a senior leader can miscalculate.
It is also worth considering the implications of the way Hyon's reported execution was made public by an NIS leak. The information was provided to the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee during a 'closed hearing' with the expectation it would soon reach the media. This common South Korean practice is indicative of the dysfunctional relationship between the NIS and the legislature.
South Korean lawmakers repeatedly compromise sensitive intelligence to impress constituents, though it damages national security and intelligence cooperation with allies, as International Crisis Group has reported. While many citizens and lawmakers complain about the NIS being politicised, the National Assembly's predictable leaking gives the intelligence organisation a means to enter the political realm without democratic accountability. Indirect disclosure in this way undermines the trust needed for a 'healthy democracy' (one of President's Park's favourite terms).
For the international community, and South Korea in particular, the recent shadow boxing could have grave consequences. Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula are now based solely on deterrence, yet in the South, intelligence has sometimes proved flawed, and in the North, a key player may have made the ultimate miscalculation.
Daniel Pinkston is the Deputy Project Director, North East Asia at the International Crisis Group where he focuses on inter-Korean relations, domestic politics, regional security, nonproliferation and the reform process in North Korea.