SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has executed a vice premier and banished two other top officials to rural areas for re-education, South Korean officials said Wednesday.
If confirmed, they would be the latest in a series of killings, purges and dismissals carried out since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011.
North Korea is a closed, authoritarian country with a state-controlled press that often makes it difficult for outsiders, and even North Korean citizens, to know what's happening in the government.
Rival South Korea, which runs several intelligence organizations mainly tasked with spying on North Korea, has a mixed record on reporting developments across the border. In May, a former North Korean military chief, who Seoul said had been executed, was found to be alive and holding several new senior-level posts.
Jeong Joon Hee, a spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry, told reporters Wednesday that Kim Yong Jin, a vice premier in North Korea's cabinet, had been executed.
Jeong said Kim was in charge of education affairs, but refused to disclose why and when South Korea believes he was executed. He also didn't explain how his ministry obtained the information.
Little is known about Kim Yong Jin, who was last mentioned by North Korea's state news agency on June 15, when it reported he attended an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of North Korea's taekwondo federation.
Jeong said Kim Yong Chol, a top ruling Workers' Party official in charge of anti-Seoul spy operations, had also been ordered to undertake "revolutionary reeducation," in a reference to the banishment at a rural collective farm or a coal mine. Jeong said another senior party official dealing with propaganda affairs, Choe Hwi, was still on a similar "revolutionary re-education" program.
Seoul officials believe Kim Yong Chol, director of the party's United Front Department, orchestrated two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010, when he headed the North Korean army's intelligence agency. Kim disappeared from public eye for about 50 days before the North's state media on Sunday mentioned his name in a list of officials who attended ceremonies marking the Youth Day.
The rival Koreas have shared the world's most heavily fortified border since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, and they bar ordinary citizens from exchanging phone calls, letters and emails without special permission.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.