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Apr 29, 7:14 AM EDT

Seoul's spy agency says North Korean leader Kim Jong Un executed 15 senior officials this year


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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers on Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the execution of 15 senior officials this year who were accused of challenging his authority.

Lawmaker Shin Kyoung Min said National Intelligence Service chief Lee Byoung Ho also told legislators in a closed-door briefing that Kim appeared likely to visit Russia next month to attend the 70th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Shin said Lee didn't reveal how the intelligence agency obtained the information. The agency declined to confirm the comments when contacted by The Associated Press.

Since taking over North Korea's leadership after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, Kim has removed key members of the old guard through a series of purges. The process was highlighted by the 2013 execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for alleged treason. Jang was married to Kim Jong Il's sister and was once considered the second most powerful man in North Korea.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies, said the purges underline Kim Jong Un's inexperience as a young dictator who is struggling to find effective ways to control his regime.

Lee told the lawmakers that a North Korean official with a rank comparable to a vice Cabinet minister in the South was executed in January for questioning Kim's policies on forestation, Shin said.

He said another North Korean official of similar rank was executed in February for resisting Kim's plans to construct a new building in the shape of a flower named after his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, Shin said.

Shin said the agency also believes that North Korea used a firing squad in March to execute four senior members of Pyongyang's famous Unhasu Orchestra on charges of espionage which Lee did not detail.

Lee told the lawmakers that North Korea has yet to book a hotel in Moscow for Kim's possible visit, but that the country's embassy is large and well-equipped enough to accommodate him, Shin said. It would be Kim's first overseas trip since taking power. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has decided not to attend the May 9 event in Moscow and plans to send an envoy instead.

The South Korean spy agency has a spotty record of tracking developments in North Korea. Information trickling out of the highly secretive state is often difficult to confirm.

In an intelligence success, the agency correctly said that Jang had likely been dismissed from his posts before North Korea officially announced his arrest.

However, it received heavy criticism when its director acknowledged that it had ignored intelligence indicating North Korea's impending shelling of a South Korean island in 2010. It also came under fire because of reports that it first learned of the 2011 death of then leader Kim Jong Il more than two days after it occurred when state media announced it to the world.

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