North Korea's former deputy prime minister and National Planning Committee chairman, Kim Tal-hyon, who visited Seoul in 1992 leading an economic team, was a member of nation founder Kim Il-sung's family and an economics expert who enjoyed Kim's confidence. Returning home from Seoul, he realized that reform and market opening were the only way for the North to survive. He endeavored to revive the North Korean economy but committed suicide in 2000.
He fell out of favor with leader Kim Jong-il while attempting to turn around the Hungnam fertilizer plant which he saw as the key to resolving the North's food problem. The plant, built by the Japanese colonialists, was a sort of lifeline for the North's agriculture, producing over 1.6 million tons of fertilizer a year. But production plummeted due to obsolete equipment. Convinced that improved fertilizer production would help, Kim Tal-hyon staked his fate on building it up.
He reportedly urged Kim Jong-il to invest US$100 million in the latest equipment. A short while later, the Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers' Party held a rally of engineers and laborers at the People's Palace of Culture in Pyongyang. Kim went along and was dumbfounded to find himself denounced by participants. They reportedly shouted, "Kim Tal-hyon is a turncoat" and "betrayed the revolutionary classes." Relegated to nominally managing the February 8 Vinalon Complex in 1993, he committed suicide in August 2000 upon hearing a word that the State Security Agency were coming to arrest him. Workers at the Hungnam fertilizer plant reportedly wept when they heard the news.
Had the Hungnam fertilizer plant been renovated as planned, the North might have been able to reduce the scope of the mass starvation of tens of thousands of people in the 1990s. Kim Jong-il, while pouring $870 million into the construction of the bombastic Kumsusan Memorial Palace for Kim Il-sung, left the fertilizer plant to turn into a pile of scrap metal.
In 1997, another party leader was publicly executed in Pyongyang. So Kwan-hi, the then party secretary for agricultural affairs, had also been close to Kim Il-sung. Charged with minor graft, he was made a scapegoat by Kim Jong-il for the mass starvation. He was denounced as a spy for the U.S. imperialist and shot in front of tens of thousands of people. The State Security Agency claimed the starvation was all So Kwan-hui's fault, and North Koreans believed that, unable to credit that their "dear leader" himself could be to blame.
When the Lee Myung-bak government took office in 2008, Pyongyang started setting up another scapegoat. Choi Sung-chol, the former deputy director of the party's United Front Department, was thrown in a concentration camp because Kim Jong-il was angry about the unexpected election result in the South, where he had thought the Left would win.
Now reports say that Pak Nam-gi, the former director of the Planning and Finance Department, was executed by firing squad for the botched currency reform of late last year. Nobody thinks that Pak Nam-gi, who was in his late 70s, played the leading role in such an enormous task. The disastrous currency reform and its fallout are shaking the regime to its core, and North Koreans have to fear execution without having committed any serious crimes. The people know that they are dying in place of someone else.
By Kang Chol-hwan from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk