Kim Jong-un dismissed Hyon Yong-chol as North Korea’s minister of defense around April 30, 2015—this much we know, but little else about his fate is certain. South Korean intelligence reported the following month that the regime executed Hyon, but in truth, it remains unclear today if he is dead or alive.
If South Korean intelligence is correct, Hyon’s death would mark a grisly end to an illustrious military career and feed into Seoul’s narrative of a bloody wave of purges carried out by Kim Jong-un.
But a number of signs suggest that the ROK government’s report of Hyon’s death is premature. North Korea has so far revealed no direct or circumstantial evidence to support the ROK National Intelligence Service (NIS) allegation, and the South Korean agency’s past record does little to inspire confidence. Moreover, no one outside Kim’s inner circle knows what prompted Hyon’s ouster, casting doubt on whether his presumed misstep justified the execution of a 66-year-old regime stalwart.
Hyon’s dismissal and the appointment of General Pak Yong-sik as his successor—the sixth minister of defense since Kim took power just three and a half years ago—have had no observable impact on political stability in North Korea. Both were political non-events, as far as most ordinary DPRK citizens were concerned.