A former North Korean military chief who Seoul had said was executed is actually alive and in possession of several new senior-level posts, the North's state media said Tuesday, per the AP. The news on Ri Yong Gil marks yet another blunder for South Korean intelligence officials, who have often gotten information wrong in tracking developments with their rival. It also points to the difficulties that even professional spies have in figuring out what's going on in one of the world's most closed governments. Ri, who was considered one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's most trusted aides, missed two key national meetings in February. Seoul intel officials later said that Kim had him executed for corruption and other charges. The South's report on Ri's execution seemed to be bolstered later in February when Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency confirmed Ri had lost his job by describing someone else as chief of the North Korean military's general staff.
Ri hadn't appeared anywhere in KCNA until the report Tuesday that a person with the same name was among those awarded important positions during the just-concluded Workers' Party congress in Pyongyang (Ri got three important posts). Seoul's Unification Ministry said it confirmed Ri is back after analyzing North Korean state media pics and video of the party congress. South Korean media says Seoul intelligence authorities were responsible for initial reports on Ri's execution, but the National Intelligence Service—the South's main spy agency—now says it never disclosed info on Ri. Monitoring developments among the North's ruling elite is very hard for outsiders; the country keeps strict tabs on visitors, and its state-run press disseminates government propaganda. South Korea, which runs several intel groups tasked with spying on the North, has a mixed record: It faced criticism earlier this year for failing to see in advance that the North had been prepping for its fourth nuclear test, and the NIS failed to learn of Kim Jong Il's death before the North's state TV announced it. (Read more North Korea stories.)