In America, we are embroiled in a debate at the state level over the ethics of how we administer the death penalty—over the issues of whether the cocktail of drugs we use for lethal injection is inhumane. In March, Utah Governor Gary Herbert made headlines and sparked a fierce debate by signing a controversial bill allowing for execution by firing squad.
In North Korea, the government is a little less torn about the matter. According to reports, Pyongyang publicly executed its defense minister last month by firing artillery guns at him in front of a crowd of a few hundred people. The FT reports:
Hyon Yong Chol, 66, had enjoyed a rapid rise under Mr Kim: relatively unknown when he was promoted to vice-marshal in 2012, he became one of Pyongyang’s top officials last year with a ministerial position and a seat on the National Defence Commission, the most powerful organ in North Korea. His name regularly appeared near the top of the list of officials accompanying Mr Kim to public events.
This isn’t the first time in his almost four years as North Korea’s dictator that Kim Jong Un has put on such a show in order to remind everyone who’s in charge. After he came to power in the wake of his father’s death, he executed a number of top officials (and potential challengers), including his uncle’s entire nuclear family. According to some (admittedly unconfirmed and disputed) reports, he had them eaten alive by dogs.
The combination of brutality and publicity is aimed at making the regime look powerful, capable of crushing its enemies and more than willing to do so should the need arise. But as the FT notes, this sort of thing actually communicates the opposite message from the one intended:
The suggestion that Hyon was executed for falling asleep in front of Mr Kim — as well as disobeying orders — echoes the state denunciation of [Kim Jong Un’s uncle] Jang, who was condemned for “halfheartedly clapping” when a new title was bestowed on the supreme leader. […]
“Every time we hear rumours of more executions, we have to wonder whether it’s a sign of authority or an inability to keep things under control,” Victor Cha, a White House adviser on Asia under George W Bush, told the Financial Times last week.
According to at least some former insiders, his moves to inspire fear in his underlings are a product of desperation:
“He’s not being paranoid — from high-level officials to ordinary people, they really don’t respect him,” [said Ahn Myeong-chul, Head of the NGO NK Watch and a former guard at one of North Korea’s infamous gulags].
They’re right. It’s necessarily a sign of strength when a regime pulls publicity stunts like this. Just how fragile is the Kim regime?