Was a North Korean General Really Executed by Mortar Fire?

Who knows? But it has the ring of truth.

The latest gallows gossip from Pyongyang recounts the execution of fifty-something Kim Chol, the nom de guerre of a deputy defense minister. South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported in late October that Kim was one of several senior Korean People's Army officials executed or arrested after Kim Jong Un's accession following the December 2011 death of his father Kim Jong Il. According to the paper, during North Korea's official three-month mourning period, Kim Chol enjoyed liquor in the company of a female colleague in the North Korean military, a violation of Kim Jong Un's explicit warning against "singing or dancing, merrymaking or recreation." If the story is accurate, Kim Chol and his comrades were killed by mortar rounds fired at point-blank range.

Kim Chol's fate cannot be confirmed. North Korea is notoriously opaque, with strict controls on information and a rigorously censored state media. Narrative accounts about North Korean elites are often fabrications; little snippets of information are imaginatively threaded together by creative diplomats or intelligence officials (Chosun Ilbo sourced Kim Chol's death to a lawmakers' "intelligence data") and peddled to journalists working in the hyper-competitive South Korean and Japanese media markets. And yet sometimes the stories of elites emerge from gossip inside the country, from clerks, typists, telephone operators, workers in foreign trading corporations and middle management in the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. The Kim Chol story first appeared in South Korean media in March; its reappearance, and the trivial reason cited for his execution, suggests it originated from gossip.

It also suggests that rumors of his fate may have been intentionally circulated to warn ambitious members of the military not to challenge the authority of the new leadership. Although Kim Chol was only a second-tier official in the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces, he enjoyed a decent public profile. In October 2010 he was part of the delegation that saw off then army chief of staff Ri Yong Ho at the airport before his visit to Cuba (Ri was dismissed in July 2012 in a major purge). In October 2011, Kim attended a wreath laying ceremony at the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower in Pyongyang with visiting Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang.

The rumored execution of an official who attended a state event with a top official of the country's closest ally might deter other North Korean elite from challenging the new leader. To external observers, it suggests that Kim Jong Un will manage North Korea's generals in the same fashion as his paranoid, wily father.

In December 1989, with a velvet wind blowing apart the Warsaw Pact communist countries in central and east Europe, military authorities arrested Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu (a Kim acolyte) and his wife. The execution of the Ceau?escus by firing squad, aired on Romanian state television, incited prayerful consideration in Pyongyang. For Kim Jong Il, who had taken over the civilian reins of government from his ailing father Kim Il Sung, it caused him to double down on personal security measures and to construct an elaborate evacuation network of tunnels and safe houses. To those in the military opposed to his succession, it germinated the kernel of a direct challenge, subsequently emboldened by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In July 1994, Kim Il Sung passed away. In 1995, Kim Jong Il faced his only known significant military challenge. While the details remain unclear, it appears that the 6th Army Corps, one of the military's nine major regular army units, abandoned their posts and might have mobilized with the intention of marching on the capital. When word of the 6th Corps' challenge to the leadership reached Pyongyang, the response was rapid and violent. Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law Jang Song Taek and several core military leaders deployed to the area, and disbanded the unit. Scores of commanders and officers were reportedly executed. Some accounts claim a firing squad brandishing machine guns mowed them down. Other accounts say the officers were tied up and restrained in their headquarters, which was burned down.

Kim Jong Il had learned the importance of keeping his friends close and his generals closer. Until he assumed the role of supreme leader in 1997 (after a three-year morning period for his beloved father), almost all of his reported public appearances were field inspections of military units. This broadcast the military's prominence as Kim Jong Il's most valued political constituency. Under his "military first" policy, the military received priority in the allocation of increasingly scarce food and energy resources, as well as the rights to a number of lucrative foreign-currency generating economic activities. Having given his generals the butter churn, Kim Jong Il handed out the guns. Research and development into nuclear weapons continued, and the development and production of ballistic missiles thrived.

The number of military officials treated to the largesse of Kim Jong Il's party economy steadily increased. They were permitted fine homes and vacation at exclusive retreats. On state holidays he gifted expensive automobiles, household appliances, and various luxury goods. As with Kim's close aides in the party, military officials were allowed wide administrative latitude in how they managed the daily affairs of their respective agencies and units. This eventually incited fierce bureaucratic turf warfare among senior security officials. It suited Kim Jong Il's interests as leader to have his generals squabbling among themselves instead of challenging him.

With these carrots came the sticks. While North Korean generals enjoyed a significant degree of managerial autonomy, the system in which they operated remained centered around Kim Jong Il, who spied on their professional (and personal) activities and maintained control of all personnel appointments and major policy decisions. Kim protected his position at the power center, and insulated himself from any hostile takeovers by his generals behind a formidable intelligence and security apparatus.

The Military Security Command (MSC), a security agency tasked with monitoring the military, uses a variety of eavesdropping and communications interception technology to monitor the telephone conversations and Intranet usage of military commanders. The MSC also manages the bureaucratic paperwork (birth certificates, marriages, school registration, travel permits) of the spouses and children of military officers, which allows the agency and its bosses in Pyongyang to monitor the personal and family lives of military officials for signs of discontent and thwart any possible coup attempts before they reach a critical mass.

If this intricate surveillance system that he inherited from his father were to fail Kim Jong Un, he has the added protection of three of heavily armed security forces: the 3rd Army Corps, Pyongyang Defense Command, and the Guard Command. In the event of an attempted coup or power grab, the approximately 35,000-40,000 members of the 3rd Army Corps (stationed in nearby South P'yo'ngan Province) would mobilize to form a defensive ring to protect the capital. If the 3rd Army Corps became immobilized, the next layer of protection would be the Pyongyang Defense Command (PDC), a highly mobile force of 60,000 armed with tanks, armored combat vehicles, and a variety of artillery pieces that exists primarily to quell a military coup with extreme prejudice. Days before he died, Kim Jong Il conducted an inspection of the PDC, his last reported field inspection of a military unit. Joined by his son, they watched soldiers firing heavy artillery, an effective tool to deal with the military's malcontents.

The final layer around the core leadership is the Guard Command, the most technically advanced and best-trained security organization in North Korea, which I estimate to include between 70,000 to 100,000 soldiers. It runs a separate surveillance and reporting network on senior officials and is permitted to monitor all communications in North Korea, while also possessing access to surveillance reports submitted by the MSC and other internal security agencies. The Guard Command manages the critical infrastructure -- roads, tunnels, and communications -- of which Kim Jong Un would avail himself if the military threatened his authority. It also maintains and protects Kim family residential compounds and several underground fortified facilities where the leader would go in a crisis. If Kim Jong Un's actual authority evaporated, the Guard Command could mobilize chemical weapons against the leader's belligerents.

If reports about the execution of Kim Chol and other senior military officials are accurate, it was one or a combination of those three organizations that pulled the trigger. And yet, stories of the violent deaths or imprisonments of North Korean elites can be greatly exaggerated. If all the rumors of purges over the last five years were true, then the parade review platform in Pyongyang would be desolate. Nobody could be photographed attending important meetings or parliamentary sessions, nor would anyone be around to ensure that missile tests and experimental nuclear detonations ran on time. Still, amid a cytoplasm of deception, disinformation, and misunderstanding, Pyongyang palace gossip contains a nucleus of truth.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

No, Obama Did Not Abandon Poland

How the administration has tightened relations with Warsaw.

In the foreign policy debate last week, Governor Mitt Romney repeated an assertion he's made throughout the campaign: that, in "pulling our missile defense program out" of Poland, President Obama failed to stand by a key NATO ally. This charge is simply untrue. Not only does Obama still plan to deploy missile defenses in Poland, he has done as much, if not more, than his predecessor to bolster the security of U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

Despite Polish fears that he would throw their country and its neighbors under the bus in his rush to "reset" relations with Russia, Obama has pressed ahead -- in the face of opposition from Moscow -- with a new missile defense plan that will better protect Europe. Obama has also proceeded with deployment of the air defense assets that President George W. Bush promised Poland in connection with the earlier agreement on missile defense. In addition, Obama has moved to enhance joint training between American and Polish pilots, and he has pushed NATO to update its plans for the defense of Poland and to develop similar plans for the three Baltic states -- a task the Bush administration left undone when it convinced the alliance to admit those countries in 2004.

This is not to say that bilateral relations with Poland have been perfect over the past four years. Early on, the Poles and other Central and East Europeans leaders worried that Obama was more interested in Asia and in signing arms control deals with Russia. They chafed at the fact that they don't receive quite as much face time with Obama as they enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. In addition, the public announcement of the shift on missile defense plans in September 2009 did go awry.

Central East European governments knew from the outset that the Obama team was skeptical of the $4 billion Bush system -- consisting of fixed, ground-based interceptor missiles and radars -- and intended to re-examine it in its Quadrennial Defense and Ballistic Missile Defense reviews. They also knew the system did more to fill a gap in missile defense coverage for the United States -- hence its designation as the "Third Site," complementing existing sites in Alaska and California -- than it did to protect Europe. And, as their reviews were unfolding in the summer of 2009, senior Obama administration officials discussed possible changes with allies, particularly the Poles and Czechs, who were slated to host elements of the Bush system. Because of this uncertainty, the Polish government never ratified the agreements it had signed with the Bush administration allowing deployment of the interceptor missiles on its territory.

Ultimately, the Obama reviews concluded the Bush design did not deal with the more immediate threat posed by Iranian medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It opted instead for what it called the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which would provide a transportable system that was more affordable and capable of dealing with a wider range of possible Iranian ballistic missile threats than the Bush plan. Rather than being a bilateral initiative, EPAA is the U.S. contribution to a wider NATO missile defense program that actually began interim operations to protect southern Europe and U.S. forces deployed there at the end of 2011.

Word of the reviews' conclusions began to leak in September 2009, before the Obama team could complete final consultations and develop joint public affairs campaigns with the Poles and the Czechs to head off predictable criticism (on both sides of the Atlantic) that Obama was bowing to Russian objections. So, Obama was forced to make late-night phone calls to Prime Ministers Donald Tusk of Poland and Jan Fischer in the Czech Republic as news stories were breaking in the United States. Tusk reportedly refused to take Obama's call. Fischer took the call and informed his president, Vaclav Klaus, who stated that he was not surprised and was "100 percent convinced that this decision...does not signal a cooling of relations." But the timing, and lingering concerns about the Russia reset, led Polish tabloids and opposition leaders to speak of "betrayal," and former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, who had bucked domestic opposition in agreeing to the Bush plan during his tenure, roundly criticized the Obama decision.

Senior Obama officials were chagrined and privately admitted that they could have done a better job preparing the ground for the final announcement. So there is truth to Romney's debate comment that the way this policy shift was announced did strain an already wary relationship with Warsaw. But the Obama team moved quickly to allay Polish concerns. Vice President Biden and other officials were dispatched to Warsaw and Prague. Obama reaffirmed the 2008 Bush commitment to deploy a Patriot air and short-range missile defense battery in Poland along with about 100 troops, and he left open the door to stationing new types of missile defense interceptors in Poland, an offer the Poles later agreed to accept. Under the Obama plan, Poland will have 24 improved SM-3 interceptors and an Aegis target acquisition radar deployed on its territory by 2018, compared to the 10 interceptors it would have had under the Bush design. A similar site in Romania is expected to be operational in 2015. These two sites, together with a radar now deployed in Turkey and four U.S. Aegis ships to be stationed in Spain from 2014, will provide missile defense protection for all European members of NATO.

There is still some discontent with the United States in general and Obama administration policies in particular in various quarters in Poland. But this reflects a much more complicated tangle of domestic political agendas in both countries, which surfaced even before the U.S. presidential campaign.

Poland's centrist Civic Platform government, led by Prime Minister Tusk and President Bronislaw Komorowski, has pursued a successful bilateral reconciliation with Russia and pro-EU policies in the face of tough resistance from the opposition Law and Justice Party. Komorowski faced a difficult electoral challenge in July 2010 from Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in the tragic Smolensk air crash in 2010. Kaczynski sought to capitalize on Civic Union's acceptance of the Obama missile defense plan as a sign of weakness vis a vis Moscow and a compromise of Polish interests. Komorowski won a narrow victory, but the shift in U.S. policy led him to call for Poland to develop a tactical missile defense capability separate from the NATO system.

Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, a former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who is close to prominent Republican leaders in the United States, has also made little secret of his mistrust of Obama and preference for Republican policies. Sikorsky's comments after the missile defense decision was announced fed the sense of betrayal and need to go it alone: "After today, I think we all know that if we are to look to somebody, we have to look to ourselves."

In July, former President Lech Walesa invited Romney to visit Poland. Walesa, while revered for his leadership of the Solidarity trade union in the 1980s, is no longer an influential political figure in Poland. Following their meeting, Walesa essentially endorsed Romney. However, before Romney's speech at the Gdansk shipyards, Solidarity's current leadership issued a press release making clear that Walesa was not acting on behalf of its rank and file in inviting Romney and that it stood with the U.S. AFL-CIO in strong opposition to Romney's anti-union stances.

Polish discontent with the United States also reflects a larger shift in alliance relations. Poland's leaders showed great courage in undertaking the difficult reforms required to get into NATO. It has been one of America's most reliable allies, generally contributing well above its weight to transatlantic and international security. However, recent polling by the German Marshall Fund has revealed growing disappointment among the Polish public with the United States and NATO and skepticism about the value of foreign interventions. There is a sense that Poland's engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost many lives and considerable wear and tear on the country's military capabilities, has been under-appreciated and did little to address its main security concern -- a re-assertive Russia. That is why Warsaw refused to join NATO operations in Libya.

Polish leaders know the United States remains their most capable and dependable ally and that NATO remains the best way to safeguard their security in an unpredictable world. Polish pride looms large, and given the country's history of conquest and partition, even the smallest slight can quickly develop into a major political flap. What they want from either an Obama second term or a Romney presidency is regular consultations and recognition as a valued European player in transatlantic and global affairs. Whoever occupies the White House next year would be wise to maintain that kind of engagement with Warsaw.