A series of executions and unexplained deaths since North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's son Jong-un was anointed heir to the throne in January 2009 were apparently meant to remove obstacles to the transition. Kim senior instituted several bloody purges to ensure his iron grip on power since he officially took over from his own father in 1994.
The most prominent example is perhaps the death of Ri Je-gang, a former senior deputy director of the Organization and Guidance Department and a close aide to Kim Jong-il who oversaw key military appointments for more than two decades. Ri was a bitter rival of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law and guardian to Jong-un, and was killed in a mysterious car crash in late May 2010, just a few days before Jang was promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, the North's highest leadership organ.
Ri Yong-chol, the second-in-command at the Organization and Guidance Department, also died of a heart attack in April of last year. "Ri Je-gang was the central figure of the old guard," a knowledgeable source in China said. "He seems to have been eliminated to boost the power of Kim Jong-un's supporters."
Economic officials have also purged. Pak Nam-gi, director of the Planning and Finance Department in the Workers Party, and Moon Il-bong, head of finance, were executed by firing squad in April and June last year. Hong Sok-hyong, who succeeded Pak, was relieved of all of his duties in June and his whereabouts are unknown. Ex-minister of railways Kim Yong-sam was executed in June of last year after being linked to a massive explosion in Ryongchon in 2004 that is believed to have been a botched attack on Kim Jong-il's armored train.
Key intelligence and public security officials have also disappeared while the succession was being assured. Ryu Kyong, the deputy director of the State Security Department, was shot early this year as he was considered a rival to Jang. Ju Sang-song, the minister of People's Security, was fired in March of this year. "Those considered as obstacles to Kim Jong-un are being removed," a source said. "Another bloody purge is likely after the period of mourning for Kim Jong-il ends."
The crosshairs are expected to be aimed at elderly military and party officials who could consider Kim Jong-un a lightweight. O Kuk-ryol (80), who was the central military figure during the Kim Jong-il regime is on top of the bucket list, according to experts. O was not appointed to any position within the Politburo or Central Military Commission during an extraordinary party congress in September last year.
The North's espionage operations against South Korea, which O had headed over the past 20 years, are now headed by Kim Yong-chol, who has emerged as a key aide to Kim Jong-un. Secretaries to Kim Jong-il and other elderly party officials also represent obstacles to Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il in turn got rid of his own father's secretaries when he took over.
There are views that Kim Jong-un's "reign of terror" has already begun. According to a government source, there were 60 public executions in North Korea last year, a three-fold increase from 2009. The North Korean government set up special riot police in each part of the country.
A year after Kim Jong-il was appointed North Korea's top military commander, in October 1992, he purged 20 military officers who were educated in the Soviet Union and had gained control of the North's troops. In April 1995, just after his father's death, he executed hundreds of soldiers when suspicious developments in the Sixth Army Corps stationed in North Hamgyong Province were detected. In 1997, when millions of North Koreans were starving to death, Kim Jong-il executed his then agriculture secretary So Kwan-hui in Pyongyang after accusing him of being a U.S. spy.