South Korea’s top spy agency told the country's lawmakers on Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the execution of at least 15 senior officials this year.
The officials were accused of challenging his authority.
National Intelligence Service chief Lee Byoung also told legislators in a closed-door briefing that Kim appeared likely to visit Russia in May to attend the 70th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
How the intelligence agency obtained the information is classified but South Korea is known to have the most extensive intelligence operations inside the hermit kingdom.
Since taking over the throne after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, Kim has systematically executed key members of the old guard through a series of bloody purges.
The process was highlighted by the 2013 execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for crimes against the state. Jang was married to Kim Jong Il’s sister and was at one point considered the second most powerful official in North Korea.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies, said the purges underline Kim Jong Un’s inexperience and his struggle to find effective ways to control his regime.
At the briefing lawmakers were told that a North Korean official with a rank comparable to a vice Cabinet minister was executed in January for questioning Kim’s forestry policies. Dictators of North Korea have a history of ruling by edict and do not tolerate debate or discussion.
Another official of similar rank was executed in February for resisting Kim’s plans to construct a new building in the shape of a flower named after his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
South Korea believes that North Korea used a firing squad in March to execute four senior members of Pyongyang’s famous Unhasu Orchestra on charges of espionage which Lee did not detail.
Kim’s planed trip to Moscow would be his first overseas trip since taking power. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who is increasingly weary of North Korea's erratic positioning, has decided not to attend the May 9 event in Moscow and plans to send an envoy instead.
North Korea's dictatorship means it is engaged in a constant internal power struggle, leading to external actions designed more to address internal struggles than advance the kingdom's international agenda. This makes North Korea related foreign policy difficult if not impossible, with most world power preferring a policy of heavy sanctions and isolationism until more rational leadership is in place.