Fantastical news stories about exotic methods of execution in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have become vogue topics for the media, with each absence from an official function stirring rumors of a falling out with upper leadership. However, the presumed disappeared figures often soon turn up unharmed.
A report in a South Korean daily about an alleged execution in the DPRK has begun to gain traction in other media outlets. However, the source for the outlandish tale gets funding from a front group for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
On April 23, Daily NK, a Seoul-based news outlet that claims to source its reports on North Korea from a network of informants across the demilitarized zone, published a story claiming that DPRK leader Kim Jong Un had ordered a senior Foreign Affairs Ministry official executed for buying the wrong kind of medical equipment for a new general hospital in Pyongyang.
According to the article, Kim wanted the hospital put up in a hurry amid the COVID-19 pandemic and expected it to be filled with German equipment, apparently owing to his fascination with Europe after having studied there in his youth. However, due to pandemic-induced export restrictions and a small budget, the official bought the equipment at a better price from neighboring China instead. The overall hospital project is reportedly months behind schedule, although it is now believed to only lack medical tools.
According to the outlet, the ministry official responsible for managing imports and exports was executed, and a senior Ministry of Health official was also fired for the failure.
Reports about North Korean officials being executed for seemingly trivial errors are nothing new, but neither are stories about their surprising return without harm weeks or months after the report, either, meaning a healthy amount of skepticism is often due if the reports are not official. In the case of this story, however, an even larger dose than normal is due, because Daily NK received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a CIA cutout.
Begun by Congressional directive in 1984 with an $18 million annual budget, the NED has, by admission of its first and longest-serving president, Carl Gershman, served as a convenient soft power front for the CIA because “it would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA. We saw that in the 1960’s and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.”
Another former acting president, Allen Weinstein, similarly told ProPublica in 1991 that “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA. The biggest difference is that when such activities are done overtly, the flap potential is close to zero. Openness is its own protection.”
The NED has helped provide funding for a slew of groups and movements found amenable to US foreign policy interests over the years, including the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center overseas liaison group to labor unions; the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt during the 2011 Arab Spring protests; the World Uyghur Congress and Uighur Human Rights Project since as early as 2004; and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, among other groups central to the city’s large protests in recent years.
However, it’s true that importing medical equipment to the DPRK is challenging. As Sputnik has reported, US economic sanctions intended to bar importation of certain materials that could be used for military or nuclear weapons purposes have the side-effect of blocking medical tools as well.
The hospital also remains unopened well past the projected completion date of October 10, although in January some satellite photos suggested it could soon be opened. At least one cause of construction delay was the discovery of unexploded US bombs during the excavation process. During the 1950-53 Korean War, the US Air Force bombed Pyongyang intensively, with Dean Rusk, a part of the US government during the war who later became US Secretary of State in the 1960s, remarking that the US bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” The USAF estimated that 20% of the North’s population was killed by US bombing during the war.