Pyongyang 'executes former minister'

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The Independent Online

North Korea has executed a former cabinet official who was in charge of talks with South Korea, a news report said yesterday. It is the latest reported death sentence for a North Korean official over policy failures.

Kwon Ho Ung, who was Pyongyang's chief delegate from 2004 to 2007 for talks with the South's then liberal government, was executed by firing squad, according to Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, published in the South Korean capital Seoul. The news-paper cited an unidentified source in Beijing knowledgeable about the North.

The reported execution comes as tensions between the two Koreas simmer over the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, which has been blamed on North Korea. North Korea has denied involvement in the sinking, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. Relations between the two Koreas have been particularly rocky since a pro-US, conservative government took office in Seoul in early 2008 with a tough policy on Pyongyang.

The newspaper report said it had not confirmed when and where Kwon was executed. The allegation follows other reported executions of North Korean officials for policy blunders.

In March, the North executed two senior economic officials over a botched currency revamp that forced markets to close temporarily and fueled social tensions, according to Daily NK, a Seoul-based media outlet that specialises in the North.

The North redenominated its currency, the won, in December as part of efforts to fight inflation and reassert control over its burgeoning market economy. That move reportedly sparked unrest after many North Koreans were stuck with piles of worthless banknotes.

It is not unprecedented for the Communist regime to execute officials for policy failures. In the Nineties, North Korea publicly executed a top agricultural official following widespread famine.

North Korea is regarded as having one of the world's worst human rights records.

* The US and South Korea will launch joint military exercises this weekend to sharpen their readiness against North Korean aggression, the allies' defence chiefs said yesterday, despite warnings from Pyongyang that the drills would deepen tensions on the peninsula.