A former North Korean military chief who Seoul had said was executed is actually alive and in possession of several new senior-level posts, the North’s state media said Tuesday.
The news on Ri Yong Gil marks yet another blunder for South Korean intelligence officials, who have often gotten information wrong in tracking developments with their rival. It also points to the difficulties that even professional spies have in figuring out what’s going on in one of the world’s most closed governments. Ri, who was considered one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s most trusted aides, missed two key national meetings in February. Seoul intelligence officials later said that Kim had him executed for corruption and other charges. Kim has reportedly overseen a series of killings, purges and dismissals since he took power in late 2011, part of what foreign experts call an attempt to tighten his grip on power. The South’s report on Ri’s execution seemed to be bolstered later in February when Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency confirmed Ri had lost his job by describing someone else as chief of the North Korean military’s general staff.
He hadn’t appeared anywhere in KCNA, the North’s main media outlet for foreign audiences, until the report Tuesday that a person with the same name as Ri was among those awarded important positions during the just concluded Workers’ Party congress in Pyongyang. The congress, the first in 36 years, ended Monday with announcements of personnel and organizational changes.
Ri got three posts – member of the party’s central committee, alternate member of the committee’s powerful political bureau, and member of the party’s central military commission. Seoul’s unification ministry said Tuesday that it confirmed Ri is back after analysing North Korean state media photos and video of the party congress.