Officials in South Korea are monitoring reports that Choe Yong-gon was executed in May.

The Yonhap news agency reports that North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un had the vice president executed after Choe Yong-gon “expressed discomfort against the young leader’s forestation policy.” Yong-gon would be the latest of almost 70 officials killed during Kim Jong-un’s rule, according to the BBC.

Has Kim Jong-Un Executed North Korea Vice President?

Reported execution unconfirmed by North Korea

North Korea rarely verifies reports of executions, and the BBC has not been able to confirm reports. Choe made his last public appearance in December, according to South Korea’s unification ministry, which said it was “closely monitoring the possibility of any changes in Choe’s circumstances.”

Yonhap, the official South Korean news agency, often carries news on North Korea before other media outlets. Few details about the supposed execution were provided in its report.

Choe Yong-gon worked as deputy minister of construction and building material industries, and also represented Pyongyang at trade talks with South Korea in the mid-2000s. In June last year he became one of seven vice-premiers, and one analyst saw his appointment as indicative of North Korea’s intention to maintain a working relationship with the South.

Purges of officials frequent under Kim’s rule

Previous reports from South Korea’s intelligence services claimed that 15 officials had been executed on Kim Jong-un’s orders in the first 4 months of 2015. The agency reported that one of the victims was a forestry official who complained about Kim’s forestation plan, but it is not clear whether Choe Yong-gon was the man in question.

Another report in May claimed that Defence Minister Hyon Yong-chol had been executed using an anti-aircraft gun, a grisly end for the official provoked by an alleged display of disloyalty to Kim.

Reports that Choe Yong-gon was killed for his opposition to forestry policy brings fresh scrutiny to a program that appears to be one of Kim’s personal favorites. Officials say that North Korea is in the midst of the worst drought for 100 years, and around 30% of rice paddies have dried out as a result.

According to Radio Free Asia, Pyongyang engaged in an intensive “greenification” program last year in order to improve the situation. Under the terms of the program, provincial forestry department’s were granted new powers.

“At present, the forests of the country can be said to have reached a crossroads – whether to perish for ever or to be restored,” said Kim during a speech in February. He later criticized officials for their preference for fixing problems caused by flooding, rather than planting trees to prevent flooding.

General population also subject to abuse

Purges of officials are just one way in which Kim is allegedly violating human rights in North Korea. For the general population, any sign of political opposition to the ruling Workers’ Party can lead to time in a forced labor camp, a network of which exist across the country.

Many inmates do not survive the brutal camps, in which families of deserters can also be found. Many of those wishing to escape North Korea do not tell their families of their plans, but that does not stop their relatives from being punished if they manage to leave the country.

The majority of escape attempts are made across the border with China, given the fact the the border with South Korea is heavily militarized and subject to heavy surveillance from both sides. Recent troop movements by China’s People’s Liberation Army have seen Beijing strengthen its presence along the frontier, perhaps with the aim of securing Chinese border towns against an increasing number of incursions from North Korea.

United Nations investigating human rights abuses

Although economic migrants are known to work in China, a number of incidents have revealed the existence of criminal elements which have entered China to steal, and even killed Chinese citizens. The fact that Chinese troops, rather than border guards, are now responsible for policing the frontier may indicate China’s wish to stop the flow of migrants.

The United Nations has set up a field office in the South Korean capital of Seoul in order to investigate claims of widespread human rights abuses in North Korea. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the abuses have been liked to those committed by the Nazis.

Kim Jong-un reacted angrily to the opening of the field office, but evidence continues to mount. Living conditions for North Koreans are terrible, due in large part to continued investment in nuclear weapons programs.

Not only does research account for a huge proportion of the state budget, it also provoked the imposition of stringent economic sanctions by the West which largely exclude North Korea from the world economy.