The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has executed his deputy premier for education and purged two other senior officials, sending them to re-education camps, the South Korean government said on Wednesday.
Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, said at a news briefing that the government had used various means to confirm the execution of Kim Yong-jin, the deputy premier, and the purge of Kim Yong-chol, the head of the United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party, which handles relations with, as well as spying operations against, South Korea. Choe Hui, a deputy chief of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, was also banished for re-education, Mr. Jeong said.
Mr. Jeong provided no further details, including when the reported punishments were believed to have taken place or how South Korea had learned of them.
Mr. Kim, the deputy premier, would be the highest-ranking official known to have been executed since 2013, when North Korea confirmed in a rare announcement that Kim Jong-un had executed his own uncle and No. 2 official, Jang Song-thaek, on charges of factionalism, corruption and plotting to overthrow his government.
The South Korean national news agency, Yonhap, citing an anonymous government source, reported that the deputy premier had been arrested for sitting in a “disrespectful” posture during a meeting led by Kim Jong-un. He was executed by firing squad in July, the agency said. Yonhap also reported that Kim Yong-chol, the United Front Department head, had spent a month in a re-education camp for abuse of power and that he had been released in mid-August.
Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong-un has frequently reshuffled the party and military elites as he has consolidated his authority in North Korea, which his family has ruled for seven decades. Mr. Kim has also executed dozens of top officials in what President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has called a “reign of terror,” according to South Korean intelligence officials.
It remains difficult to independently verify reports of executions and purges in the secretive North. North Korea rarely announces them.
It was unusual for a South Korean government spokesman to make them public in an open news briefing, though intelligence officials have often briefed lawmakers in closed-door parliamentary sessions. In one such briefing last year, lawmakers were told that Gen. Hyon Yong-chol, the defense minister, had been executed with an antiaircraft gun in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, after dozing off during military events and second-guessing Mr. Kim’s orders.
Mr. Jeong, the government spokesman, said that he was responding to recent reports in the South Korean news media. On Tuesday, the mass-circulation daily JoongAng Ilbo, citing an anonymous source, reported that Hwang Min, a former North Korean agriculture minister, and Ri Yong-jin, a senior Education Ministry official, had been executed with antiaircraft guns in early August. The newspaper reported that Mr. Ri had been arrested after dozing off during a meeting headed by Mr. Kim and that Mr. Hwang had proposed a policy that was deemed to represent a challenge to Mr. Kim’s leadership.
Mr. Jeong did not comment on the fates of those two officials in his briefing Wednesday.
JoongAng Ilbo reported that the officials’ reported executions might have been aimed at tightening Mr. Kim’s control following a senior North Korean diplomat’s recent defection to the South. South Korea announced earlier this month that Thae Yong-ho, the No. 2 in the North Korean Embassy in London, had defected to Seoul with his family.
South Korean officials often cite such high-level defections, and purges like those announced Wednesday, as potential sources of instability in Mr. Kim’s totalitarian regime. But some analysts dispute such conclusions.
Purges and executions remain a key feature of political life in the North, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean research organization. But he said that such persecutions, while barbaric, have become less frequent and “relatively restrained” under Kim Jong-un. Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, was estimated to have purged more than 2,000 officials from 1994 to 2000, he said.