Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho was chief of the general staff of the North Korean army from 2009 to July 2012, when he was suddenly stripped of his North Korean Worker's Party duties, ostensibly due to an unspecified "illness." South Korean and Western media later reported that Ri was likely under house arrest; then that he had been executed.
Now, Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, has told the Yonhap news agency that in North Korea it is common knowledge that Ri was executed in 2012 — though there has been no official announcement.
"North Korean officials are careful about their remarks because of the risk of being tapped," Thae told Yonhap. "Ri was known to have been executed because of likely wiretapping."
The former army chief was caught on tape complaining about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in particular criticizing Kim's promises to reform and liberalize the country. Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, also knew reforms would help the country, but wasn't able to implement them; the younger Kim was foolish to think he could, Ri is thought to have said, Thae reported.
There appears to be a pattern of executing army chiefs under Kim Jong-un. Though none have been confirmed, the past three army chiefs have been sacked and killed: Ri in 2012; his successor, Hyon Yong-chol, in 2015; and Hyon's successor, Ri Yong-gil, in February 2016. None of the executions have been confirmed by the North, however.
It is unclear how many people have been executed under Kim Jong-un's reign, with reports ranging from 70 to a stunning 340. The North gives few details about its executions, though it did announce the 2013 execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Song-thaek.