A top North Korean military general reported to have been executed three months ago is actually very much alive and has now been appointed to two senior-level positions within the nation’s ruling Workers’ Party.
The sudden re-emergence of Gen. Ri Yong-gil in Pyongyang over the weekend marks a blunder on the part of South Korean officials, who claimed in February to have intelligence that the former North Korean military chief had been put to death on corruption charges.
Gen. Ri — believed to be in his 60s — was not only present at the Workers’ Party congress gathering over the weekend, he was named a member of the party’s influential Central Committee, as well as its Central Military Commission, according to North Korean state media reports on Tuesday.
The Associated Press, which cited the state media reports, said the development exposes the difficulties that even professional intelligence agents have in figuring out what’s actually going on inside North Korea’s notoriously secretive regime.
South Korean officials made international headlines in February when their anonymous claims to news organizations about Gen. Ri sparked speculation that North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un may have deemed the general as an internal threat to his grip on power in Pyongyang.
At the time, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that Gen. Ri, who had been the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army in the North, was accused of corruption and also faced charges of pursuing personal gains.
Gen. Ri’s reported execution seemed bolstered later in February when Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed he had lost his job by describing someone else as being in the position.
The development was thought to fit within a pattern of purges and reshuffling of senior-level officials that have been characteristic of Kim Jong-un’s tenure since coming to power in Pyongyang following the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
The most notable example occurred in 2013, when Mr. Kim was reported to have ordered the execution of his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, the former vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and the regime’s then-second in command.
But the fact Gen. Ri is alive raises questions about the veracity of such reports and is likely to trigger new speculation over Mr. Kim’s relations with top officials in the regime he inherited from his father.
The AP reported Tuesday that Gen. Ri had not appeared anywhere in KCNA, the North’s main media outlet for foreign audiences, until the report Tuesday that a person with his name was among those awarded important positions during the Workers’ Party congress gathering.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Tuesday that it had analyzed North Korean state media photos and videos from recent days and confirmed that the person in question is actually Gen. Ri.
The once-in-a-generation Workers’ Party congress — a five-day spectacle of political theatrics that wrapped up Tuesday in Pyongyang — was largely a celebration of Mr. Kim’s consolidation of power in isolated and nuclear-armed North Korea.
The event marked the first time since 1980 that the party has held an official congress — the occurrence of which coincides with a rising tide of regional tensions since Pyongyang carried out its forth nuclear test in January.
Despite the North Korean regime’s notorious suspicion of foreigners, the government in Pyongyang invited scores of foreign journalists to cover the congress — only the seventh such event since the Workers’ Party was founded in 1946.
Three journalists from the BBC were expelled Monday for reporting that angered the authorities in Pyongyang. The BBC, which has said it was disappointed by North Korea’s decision, reported that correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was detained and interrogated for eight hours, before being made to sign a statement of apology to the authorities.