SEOUL — North Korean defense minister Hyon Yong Chol settled into a concert hall seat on an evening in late April to watch Pyongyang’s best-known pop act, the Moranbong Band, perform hits including “Glorious Motherland” and “My Country is the Best.”
It was most probably his last public appearance.
According to intelligence gathered by South Korean spies and shared with lawmakers in Seoul, Hyon was charged the next day with treason and later gruesomely executed by anti-aircraft gun fire. If confirmed, it would be the latest in a string of purges under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
As with past purges in the isolated, nuclear-capable country, there were no outward clues that Hyon, 66, was in any danger. According to reports in North Korean state media, his last days were packed with pomp, ceremony, and the exchange of bows and floral baskets in honor of the system that ultimately appears to have killed him.
Born in rural North Hamgyong province in 1949, Hyon was educated at Pyongyang’s prestigious military colleges and spent his entire career in the army.
A member of the powerful National Defense Commission since September, Hyon became defense minister last June and had been on Kim Jong Il’s funeral committee, a position signaling his proximity to the late leader. However, many of those on that committee have since been removed from power, reflecting the formation of a new power base around his son, Kim Jong Un.
Hyon was a sociable man known to be committed to his work, according to South Korean media outlet Herald Corp, which quoted an intelligence source on Wednesday as saying he liked to drink and that his personal relationships were “going well.”
On April 13, Hyon led a delegation to a security conference in Moscow, weeks before Kim Jong Un was expected to visit Russia for a military parade in what would have been his first overseas trip since taking power in 2011.
Ten days after he returned to Pyongyang, at the same time the NIS believes Hyon was executed, a Kremlin spokesman said Kim’s visit was cancelled due to North Korean “internal affairs.”
During Hyon’s visit, Russian diplomats and bureaucrats attended a birthday party in North Korea’s sprawling Moscow embassy compound for deceased yet “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current leader. With Hyon, they offered “floral baskets and bouquets” in his honor, according to North Korean state media.
The next day, in his uniform laden with medals and reading glasses at the tip of his nose, Hyon delivered a characteristically belligerent speech at the conference, warning the United States of North Korea’s capacity to unleash a “nuclear strike.”
Back in Pyongyang on April 22, Hyon again found flowers in his hand, this time presented by China’s military envoy Zhang Ping, the doyen of Pyongyang’s foreign military corps. The floral basket was for Kim Jong Un, celebrating the founding anniversary of the army of which Hyon was still in charge.
Celebrations continued the following day, as Hyon hosted foreign military attaches and North Korean generals for a reception at the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces.
On the April 25-26 weekend, Hyon and other military officials placed flowers before statues of North Korea’s deceased leaders, bowing in “humblest reverence,” state media said.
State media reported he attended the Pyongyang pop concert on April 29. There has been no official word of him since.