Last cigarette: Beijing brings in smoking bans from Monday

Beijing will ban smoking in restaurants, offices and on public transport from Monday, part of new curbs welcomed by anti-tobacco advocates, though how they will be enforced remains to be seen.

Health activists have pushed for years for stronger restrictions on smoking in China, the world’s largest tobacco consumer, which is considering further anti-smoking curbs nationwide.

Under the rules, anyone in China’s capital who violates the bans, which include smoking near schools and hospitals, must pay 200 yuan ($32.25). The current fine, seldom enforced, is just 10 yuan ($1.60).

Anyone who breaks the law three times will be named and shamed on a government website. And businesses can be fined up to 10,000 yuan ($1,600) for failing to stamp out smoking on their premises.

“Restaurant staff have a duty to try to dissuade people from smoking,” said Mao Qunan, of the National Health and Family Planning Commission. “If they don’t listen to persuasion, then law enforcement authorities will file a case against them.“

The government will also no longer allow cigarettes to be sold to shops within 100 metres of primary schools and kindergartens, according to state media.

Smoking is a major health crisis in China, where more than 300 million smokers have made cigarettes part of the social fabric and millions more are exposed to secondhand smoke. More than half of Chinese smokers buy cigarettes at less than five yuan (80 US cents) a pack.

Parliament passed legislation last month banning tobacco ads in mass media, public places, on public transport and outdoors. Many Chinese cities have banned smoking in outdoor public places, but enforcement has been lax.

Bright red banners, typically used to display government slogans, have been posted around Beijing with anti-smoking messages. The city has also set up a hot line on which violators can be reported, the China Daily reported.

The names of people and companies who violate the rules more than three times will be posted on a government website for a month, state radio said.

Anti-tobacco advocates said they were more confident in the government’s will to enforce the bans after a series of tougher measures in recent months, including a bigger tobacco tax.

“We couldn’t say this is the strongest law in the world,” said Angela Pratt, of the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative. “But it’s certainly up there with the strongest, in that there are no exemptions, no exceptions and no loopholes on the indoor smoking ban requirement.”

Vladimir Putin declares all Russian military deaths state secrets

Vladimir Putin has declared that all military deaths will be classified as state secrets not just in times of war but also in peace – a move that activists worry might further discourage the reporting of Russian soldiers’ deaths in Ukraine.

The Russian president has amended a decree to extend the list of state secrets to include information on casualties during special operations when war has not been declared, among other changes. Previously, the list had only forbidden (pdf) “revealing personnel losses in wartime”. He has repeatedly denied any involvement of Russian troops in a pro-Russian rebellion in Ukraine.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the changes were not connected to the conflict in Ukraine. Revealing state secrets is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Rights advocate Valentina Melnikova, secretary of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, said the decree simply legalised the common practice of withholding information on all military losses, which had been done since Soviet times.

“I don’t know what [the new decree] is connected with, but the bolsheviks and Russian authorities never revealed any casualty numbers, except after South Ossetia,” she said, referring to the 2008 conflict during which Russian troops established control of the Georgian breakaway region. “It was always considered a state secret. Now Putin has just made this official.”

Sergei Krivenko, a member of the presidential human rights council, said the decree “raises many questions” and could serve to intimidate activists, journalists or relatives who report the deaths of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

“If we lived in a state governed by the rule of law, this decree would only affect officials. Those who have this information don’t have the right to publish it, that’s what this decree is about,” he said. “But in the situation we’re in now … almost any citizen can be punished for revealing information, so long as the authorities decide that this information hurts the country’s interests.”

Earlier this month, one of two Russian men who were captured by Ukrainian forces during a clash with pro-Russian rebels said on camera that he was a member of the Russian special forces. Coverage of Russian soldiers’ presence in Ukraine is virtually taboo on state-controlled television, which portrays Russians fighting there as volunteers.

At least 276 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, according to a list of names compiled by Open Russia, an organisation started by Kremlin critic and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Reuters witnessed Russian troops and hundreds of pieces of weaponry near the border with Ukraine this week, providing evidence of a large-scale military buildup.

Also this month, colleagues of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered near the Kremlin in February, presented a report with evidence of Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine.

Relatives of dead servicemen and returned soldiers have been reluctant to speak out about the conflict. Activist Ilya Yashin told the Guardian that while working on the Nemtsov report he had met relatives of 17 soldiers from Ivanovo who were killed in Ukraine, but they had signed a pledge of secrecy and were afraid to go on record.

This week, US congressman Mac Thornberry said the Russian armed forces were “trying to hide their casualties” by deploying mobile crematoria to eastern Ukraine. Putin’s spokesman called the statement untrustworthy, and the US State Department reportedly declined to confirm the report.

ABC’s ‘World News Tonight’ Takes May Sweep In Demos, ‘NBC Nightly News …

ABC’s World News Tonight won the May sweep in the news demo and in adults 18-49 for the first time in eight years, that network boasted early this morning, citing Nielsen numbers.

NBC issued a blistering response, noting that NBC Nightly News clocked its 31st consecutive sweep win in total viewers, averaging 7.71 million, to best ABC by 35,000 and CBS by 1.08 million.

NBC also pointed out it that it was the No. 1 newscast in total viewers and both demos for the week of May 18-22 and is the No. 1 evening news broadcast for the season to date in total viewers and all key demographics.

CBS News jumped in on the fun, alerting reporters CBS Evening News had added 130,000 viewers compared to the previous TV season, is posting its best season delivery in viewers in nine years, logged its best May sweep delivery in total viewers in nine years, was last week’s only network evening news broadcast to post weekly gains in the news demo, and marked its closest position relative to NBC in viewers in nearly nine years.

Here are some of the details:

For the May ratings derby, ABC won by a comfortable 62,000 news demo viewers – 1.82 million viewers Lester Holt vertical NBC Newsto NBC’s 1.76 million and CBS’s 1.47 mil. In the younger demo, ABC (1.26 million) edged out NBC (1.24 million) by just 15K but more easily beat CBS (1.02 mil). In overall audience, NBC’s 7.71 million was 34K stronger than ABC’s 7.67 mil, though 1.08 million ahead of CBS (6.63 mil). This year’s total-viewer lead is NBC’s smallest in eight years; last May sweep, ABC had trailed NBC by 1.03 million.

ABC also had won the November 2014 sweep – its first such win in 18 years – against Nightly News, when Brian Williams was anchoring.  This May in those key metrics it outstripped NBC with Lester Holt anchoring. NBC Nightly News hung on to its frontrunner status for the February sweep in all key metrics – which was especially big news back then given that, for virtually all of that ratings period, anchor Williams was embroiled in controversy and missing from the program. Holt has filled in for Williams since even before NBC News announced, on February 11, it was suspending Williams for six months without pay. His continued absence, with no announcement as to his future, or lack thereof, at NBC’s news operation, makes today’s May sweep results 20% more interesting.

Complicating the storyline, Nightly averaged 7.59 million total viewers for the week of May 18 – 53,000 viewers ahead of ABC and 696,000 ahead of CBS Evening News. Nightly also averaged 1.76 million news demo viewers last week, leading ABC by 11,000 and CBS by 218,000.

And, season to date, Nightly is averaging 8.94 million total viewers, which puts it 387,000 ahead of ABC and 1.73 million ahead of CBS. NBC’s newscast is averaging 2.12 million news-demo viewers. That’s a slim 4,000-viewer edge over ABC and 420,000 ahead of CBS.

China warned over ‘insane’ plans for new nuclear power plants

China’s plans for a rapid expansion of nuclear power plants are “insane” because the country is not investing enough in safety controls, a leading Chinese scientist has warned.

Proposals to build plants inland, as China ends a moratorium on new generators imposed after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, are particularly risky, the physicist He Zuoxiu said, because if there was an accident it could contaminate rivers that hundreds of millions of people rely on for water and taint groundwater supplies to vast swathes of important farmlands.

China halted the approval of new reactors in 2011 in order to review its safety standards, but gave the go-ahead in March for two units, part of an attempt to surpass Japan’s nuclear-generating capacity by 2020 and become the world’s biggest user of nuclear power a decade later.

Barack Obama recently announced plans to renew a nuclear cooperation deal with Beijing that would allow it to buy more US-designed reactors, and potentially pursue the technology to reprocess plutonium from spent fuel.

The government is keen to expand nuclear generation as part of a wider effort to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and cut dependence on imported oil and gas.

He, who worked on China’s nuclear weapons programme, said the planned rollout was going too fast to ensure it had the safety and monitoring expertise needed to avert an accident.

“There are currently two voices on nuclear energy in China. One prioritises safety while the other prioritises development,” He told the Guardian in an interview at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

He spoke of risks including “corruption, poor management abilities and decision-making capabilities”. He said: “They want to build 58 (gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity) by 2020 and eventually 120 to 200. This is insane.”

He’s challenge to the nuclear plans is particularly powerful because of his scientific credentials and a long history of taking a pro-government stance on controversial issues, from the 1950s destruction of Beijing’s city walls to the crackdown in the 1990s on the religious group Falun Gong.

He would like to see China stop its expansion once the plants that have been approved or are now under construction are finished, and then gain a few decades experience of running them safely before expanding again. Almost all the country’s working reactors started up after 2000.

“China currently does not have enough experience to make sound judgments on whether there could be accidents,” he said. “The number of reactors and the amount of time they have been operating safely both matter.

“The safety reviews after Fukushima found some problems, but only minor ones, and the final conclusion is that China’s nuclear power is safe. But the safety checks were carried out under the old standards and the standards themselves clearly need big improvements.”

Chinese government officials argue that nuclear technology has improved since the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents, He said, but that ignores the role human error and flawed safety regimes played in both cases.

The operator of Japan’s Fukushima plant has admitted that the company failed to take stronger disaster prevention measures ahead of the earthquake and tsunami, for fear of lawsuits and protests.

“Japan has better technology and better management, and yet it couldn’t avoid an accident despite the fact that it tried very hard to learn from the US and USSR,” He said, adding that China’s nuclear monitor has sparser staffing than Japan’s, and offers low salaries that will not attract the best young scientists.

China had considered and then rejected stronger standards, He said, because of the huge pressure for a rapid expansion and companies powerful enough to put corporate profits ahead of national security.

“There were internal discussions on upgrading standards in the past four years, but doing so would require a lot more investment which would affect the competitiveness and profitability of nuclear power,” He said. “Nuclear energy costs are cheap because we lower our standards.”

Rather than encouraging debate to expose weaknesses, the government tries to stamp it out, and in a country where challenging officials is risky, there is no mechanism to encourage or protect whistleblowers.

He said: “At the moment, the ministry of environmental protection is considering a new watchdog. When they invited me over for a discussion, I told them: ‘Your safety watchdog is not independent. It listens to the national nuclear corporation and hence the scrutiny is fake’.”

One of He’s biggest concerns is the proposal to meet the aggressive expansion plans by building nuclear plants inland. Three provinces have already chosen locations for plants and started preliminary work, and several more have been proposed.

China is short of water, and areas with enough water to cool a plant in daily operations or an emergency are densely populated. He said: “They say they could build the plants in deserts, but the problem is there isn’t any water in the deserts.”

If plants are built near cities and farmland, any accident would put millions of people at risk from immediate fallout and long-term contamination similar to the radioactive leaks at Fukushima.

“If they build plants in places with a lot of water, the consequences of a nuclear leakage would be extremely grave,” He said. “I wouldn’t oppose it if they can guarantee it is 100% safe, but no one can guarantee this.

“To be honest, as I’m already 88, it won’t affect me much whether or not nuclear plants are safe. But I am concerned about the welfare of our children and think we shouldn’t just evaluate the profitability of new projects.”

Luna Lin contributed research

World’s Oldest Person Celebrates 116th Birthday in Michigan

The world’s oldest person, Jeralean Talley, turned 116 today in Inkster, Michigan.

Talley — who was born in 1899 — was named the oldest living person in the world last month, according to ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV in Detroit.

Talley’s birthday celebrations began earlier this week when she was honored at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Detroit Free Press reported. She also received a special birthday message from President Obama, according to the newspaper.

The parties continue this weekend, according to the Free Press: Talley had a celebration planned today in Inkster and another one Sunday at her church.

So what is Talley’s secret to a very long and healthy life? Last month she told WXYZ-TV she drinks coffee every day with sugar and no cream.

On her 115th birthday, she told WXYZ-TV she thanks God for her health.

“A long time ago, I asked the good Lord, when you get ready to take me home. … I don’t want to be sick,” Talley said. “So far I don’t suffer so much.”

Palmyra: historic Syrian city falls under control of Isis

The historic city of Palmyra has fallen almost entirely under the control of Islamic State, after forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, collapsed under a seven-day siege that has left the magnificent ruins there exposed to near-certain destruction by the terror group.

Activists from the city and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said most of Palmyra fell on Wednesday shortly after the Assad regime evacuated most of its civilians and began withdrawing towards regime strongholds in the west.

“The Islamic State organisation has now established almost complete control over the area from Palmyra to the Syrian-Iraqi border and onwards to the Syrian-Jordanian frontier,” said SOHR’s director, Rami Abdul Rahman.

The ancient city, once a Silk Road hub and one of the cultural centres of the ancient world that occupies mythological status in Syria, is home to some of the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins of antiquity, including the Temple of Bel, built in the first century.

Isis considers the preservation of such historical ruins a form of idolatry and has destroyed temples and historic artefacts, as well as ancient Assyrian sites in Nineveh in Iraq, after conquering the province in a lightning offensive last year.

The group has profited from looting historic treasures, in addition to scoring propaganda victories by the wanton destruction of archaeological sites, and Palmyra is likely to face a similar fate now.

The loss of the city and its surrounding gas fields, which supply electricity to much of the Assad regime’s strongholds in western Syria, is another strategic defeat that could expose Homs and Damascus to the terror group’s advances.

Isis also appeared to have taken control of major facilities in and around the city, including the legendary military prison of Tadmur, the modern name for Palmyra, a symbol of state repression for decades.

The terror group advanced into the city after seizing its northern districts earlier in the day, backed by suicide bombers and artillery.

Activists said the regime had begun launching retaliatory air strikes on the city and much of it fell into darkness with widespread electricity outages.

Amateur footage purports to show crowd burning Bashar al-Assad portrait in Palmyra

The loss of Palmyra and the surrounding gas fields, al-Hail and Arak, is a major strategic defeat for the Assad regime. The fields supply much of the electricity in the regime’s western strongholds, allowing the militant group to potentially profit from selling power back to Assad.

It also severs key supply lines to embattled regime forces in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where they are also fighting a persistent Isis encroachment. In addition, it opens the road to a possible offensive by the militants on Homs and Damascus, key regime strongholds.

The fall of Palmyra also raises questions about the fighting capability and cohesion of Assad’s remaining troops and allied militias, whose rapid collapse surprised observers, given their close proximity to supply lines and the strategic importance of the city.

The regime is stretched thin after a string of losses to rebels in Idlib in the north, who are backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but residents had expected Assad’s forces to withstand the siege for longer. Instead, they appear to be retrenching in the country’s west, cutting their losses in the face of advances by both Isis and the opposition.

“The regime didn’t seem to put up a sustained fight against the Isis attack on Palmyra, which is in and of itself concerning,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and author of Profiling the Islamic State. “Increasingly over the last several months, a new regime strategy has been emerging whereby only the most strategically critical locations and regions receive total support and thus put up the most resistance against attack.”

The historic city of Palmyra has fallen almost entirely under the control of ISIS Photograph: SKY News

Palmyra is the second city to be seized by Isis in less than a week, after the militants routed Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, highlighting the group’s resilience in the face of a US-led coalition air campaign and the limits of its strategy.

“Far from being degraded, Isis is still advancing in important areas – capturing Ramadi and Palmyra in the same week speaks volumes as to the group’s continued capabilities,” said Lister.

The director general of the UN’s cultural agency called for an immediate end to hostilities in the Unesco world heritage site and for the protection of cultural heritage from direct targeting.

“I am deeply concerned by the situation at the site of Palmyra. The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population,” said Irina Bokova.

“I reiterate my appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities at the site. I further call on the international community to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra.”

However, Isis has often cherished its destruction of cultural artefacts, releasing long, well-produced videos of their destruction of objects in the Mosul Museum and their detonation and bulldozing of much of the ancient fortress city of Hatra in Iraq.

Experts say the group benefits from its destruction of cultural heritage because it shows the militants can act with impunity and exposes the impotence of the international community in the face of the provocations.

Syria’s antiquities chief, Mamoun Abdulkarim, told AFP that hundreds of statues and artefacts from Palmyra’s museum had been transferred out of the city but many others, including massive tombs, could not be moved. Many of the city’s monumental ruins are too heavy to transport or consist of ancient buildings and architecture.

Mom Jailed Over Circumcision Dispute With Son’s Father

Heather Hironimus does not want her son to be circumcised — and she’s been jailed for refusing to cooperate with a court order to do so.

The Florida mother has been in custody since Thursday after going missing for several months with her 4-year-old son, allegedly to avoid circumcising him, according to court records.

Hironimus has been fighting a legal battle for more than a year with the 4-year-old boy’s father, Dennis Nebus, over circumcising the child — a disagreement that began even before the child was born, the court documents show. The couple briefly agreed on circumcision in 2012, when they split up, but Hironimus changed her mind, according to ABC affiliate WPLG.

Hironimus lost a legal battle with Nebus in May 2014, when a Palm Beach County judge ruled that the boy should be circumcised, according to the Orlando Sun Sentinel.

In March 2015, the judge ordered Hironimus to bring the boy in to schedule the circumcision procedure, according to the Sun Sentinel.

But Hironimus never showed up in court, prompting a warrant for her arrest, the newspaper reported, also noting that she avoided being arrested because she was living in a domestic violence shelter.

Hironimus filed a federal suit against both Nebus and the judge last month, claiming that her son did not have a medical need to be circumcised, had expressed that he did not want to be circumcised and was afraid of the procedure.

At the boy’s age, the Hironimus’s federal complaint says, there could be negative psychological effects resulting from circumcision.

She has been in Broward County Jail since Thursday on Palm Beach County charges, including interference with custody and writ of bodily attachment, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office.

Hironimus’s lawyer did not return multiple requests for comment from ABC News.

ABC News was not able to reach Nebus.

Homeless Muslim migrant rescues Israeli woman in Rome

ROME – A homeless Muslim immigrant is being hailed as a hero by Italians after he rescued an Israeli woman who had jumped into the River Tiber in what police say was a suicide attempt.

On Tuesday, the 32-year-old Bangladeshi, Sobuj Khalifa, spotted the woman from the bridge under which he had found refuge and quickly dove after her into the river, which cuts through the center of the historic city and is notoriously polluted.

Video of the rescue shows Khalifa holding on to the woman with one arm and swimming for the riverbank with the other, while rescuers arrive on the scene and people atop the bridge clap and shout “bravo!”

“I saw her fall from the bridge, I thought she was dead” he is seen telling police officers in broken Italian. “But (when I reached her) I saw her eyes moving, I thought she could be still alive.”

The 55-year-old Israeli was taken to hospital and is in good condition, a spokesman for Italian police in Rome told Haaretz. Her identity cannot be revealed under Italy’s privacy laws, he said, adding that the suicide attempt may have been triggered by the end of a love story.

Footage of the rescue begins 2:50

The rescue was widely reported across Italy, which, along with the rest of Europe, is in the midst of a stormy debate on immigration, as thousands of people attempt to flee war torn regions of North Africa and the Middle East by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats.

“I am not a hero,” Khalifa told Italian television TV2000. “God wants us to help everybody.”

Authorities rewarded Khalifa by granting him a permit to stay and work in Italy. He had been living illegally in Italy for eight years, and has been homeless for four.

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino wrote on his Facebook page that he had spoken to Khalifa to thank him for his “heroic and humane” act.

Riccardo Pacifici, the head of Rome’s Jewish Community, told Haaretz that the woman, who is Jewish, is now in psychiatric care and the community is in touch with her family. Pacifici told Haaretz that the city’s Jews want to thank Khalifa for his bravery and are working to find him a job and housing.

Poignant stories of first world war’s conscientious objectors go online

In the winter of 1916 the conscientious objector Harry Millward wrote to his wife Lizzie, maintaining a determinedly jaunty tone.

“The unexpected has again happened. We are going to Dartmoor Prison tomorrow … We are all in good spirits but as you must know Dartmoor is indeed a place I never in the past days expected to get there. There is some great history attached to this place and many daring escapes have taken place.”

Millward would not escape. The 23-year-old Yorkshire millworker had already been arrested, jeered as he was frogmarched through the streets of his village, and imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector who refused to sign up for the Great War.

His first world war records have now been placed online by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to mark Conscientious Objectors Day, along with those of 16,500 others who refused to serve. Their names have been resurrected through 20 years of work by Cyril Pearce, a former lecturer at Leeds University, and together with the letters, photographs, tribunal records and diaries, now comprise the world’s most comprehensive archive on the first world war objectors.

There are heartbreaking stories in the archive, including William Harrison, a teetotal vegetarian and Christian pacifist, who was arrested in 1917, sentenced to hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs and Newcastle, and not freed until six months after the war ended, in April 1919. Joseph Alfred Pearson from New Brighton, who abandoned his beliefs after brutal treatment while he was held at Birkenhead barracks, was sent to France and died near Ypres: his mother refused to accept his death-in-service memorial scroll and plaque.

A scathing contemporary view of conscientious objectors during the first world war. Harry Millward had been jeered as he was marched through his village to prison. Photograph: Imperial War Museum

Dan Snow, the historian, said the war had touched the lives of millions including those who refused to fight. “They made very brave decisions to stand up to the politicians and generals, and reject their call to arms. Now the IWM is quite rightly putting conscientious objectors on its fantastic and ambitious Lives of the First World War. Their inclusion is vital if we’re to get a real snapshot of society as a whole.”

Millward tried to remain upbeat in his letters home. “Dont worry Lizzie, keep smiling for we are fighting the great fight for humanity. There are now 600 men there so there will be plenty of company for me. I don’t know when I shall see a town again, because as far as I understand it is in the centre of the greatest moor in England,” he wrote.

However, he soon found life at Dartmoor as bleak as its reputation. Within weeks he wrote: “A terrible place, indeed the worst prison I have been in … terribly cold and bleak and foggy on the Dartmoor and wild ponies are very plentiful. Last night the wind howled around the prison and snow began to fall pretty heavily.”

As well as the letters, during and after the war Lizzie kept a scrapbook of postcards, cuttings, a Christmas souvenir drawing of the objectors in prison, photographs of cheerless Victorian interiors, and a watercolour by a friend in the prison showing the grim buildings under an icy moon.

“May we look upon life as a thing sacred beyond all possible human conception and may I look into your eyes fearlessly and honestly even when silver streaks blossom in your hair,” her husband wrote. “Very few people can do this Lizzie, may we have God’s blessing a sufficient amount of moral courage.” As if to remind himself, “moral courage” is underlined twice.

He was released in 1918, became active in Labour politics in Bradford and died of pneumonia in 1926, aged just 33. He never saw his daughter Greta: Lizzie only discovered she was pregnant a few weeks after his death.

Among the pieces she pasted into her scrapbook, probably in the 1930s, was a newspaper cutting about the prison: “Dartmoor will not be the same when the famous prison is there no longer … By a sort of poetic justice Dartmoor prisoners themselves will gradually demolish the grim buildings and no new jail will be built there.” More than 80 years later, although the prison authorities have announced that the site is to be sold, the grim buildings still stand.

North Korea defence chief reportedly executed with anti-aircraft gun

Some of the means by which the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is rumoured to have vanquished his domestic enemies since taking power in late 2011 are as imaginative as they are brutal: flamethrowers, poison and ravenous dogs.

Whatever the method used, the reports that Kim has had his defence chief, Hyon Yong-chol, executed for the treasonable crime of behaving disrespectfully are a reminder that, for the rest of the world, establishing whether a purge has taken place at all is still largely a guessing game until Pyongyang chooses to issue confirmation.

For instance, the 2013 execution for treason of Kim’s uncle and second in command, Jang Song-thaek, is not doubted. But initial reports that he was fed to more than 100 hungry dogs have been discredited.

This week, a high-ranking defector from the north claimed in an interview with CNN that Kim had his aunt (and Jang’s wife) Kim Kyong-hui dispatched, cold war-style, with a dose of poison about a year ago.

But neither method will have been as clinical as the one reportedly used in Kim’s latest high-level purge, sketchy details of which emerged on Wednesday.

The 32-year-old reportedly used anti-aircraft fire to execute his defence chief for disrespectful behaviour, including napping during a military rally attended by the leader.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency has not confirmed the purge, which was revealed by an official from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS)to a closed meeting of lawmakers.

Hyon was executed by firing squad with an anti-aircraft gun, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing testimony to a parliamentary panel given by the IS deputy director, Han Ki-beom.

Han reportedly told MPs that hundreds of people had witnessed Hyon’s execution, which was reportedly carried out in late April at Kang Kon military academy in northern Pyongyang.

Satellite images of the Kang Kon military academy Photograph: Public domain

Intelligence sources suggested Hyon was shot with 14.5mm calibre rounds – a method of execution said to be reserved for senior officials whom the leadership wishes to make examples of.

Evidence that the North Korean leadership occasionally resorts to anti-aircraft fire to dispense with its enemies came last month when the US-based Committee for Human Rights in Korea released satellite imagery that analysts said showed a shooting range lined with anti-aircraft guns apparently primed for an execution last October.

Aside from dozing off in Kim’s presence, Hyon, who spoke at a security conference in Moscow last month, had reportedly voiced dissatisfaction with his leadership.

There is also speculation that during his visit to Moscow, Hyon had failed to secure a weapons deal in return for Kim’s presence at a recent event to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany 70 years ago.

But given Hyon’s proximity to Kim, reports of his execution shocked some analysts. “Hyon was seen as one of the three closest military officials to Kim Jong-un,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean studies.

“An inexperienced leader like Kim can often display a tendency for overtly dramatic and brash moves … and for me the situation looks quite worrisome,” he added. “It also suggests Kim is politically frustrated.”

South Korea’s intelligence service has a mixed record on correctly tracking major political developments over the border, leading other analysts to strike a note of caution about Hyon’s rumoured death.

With conventional means of verification practically impossible for those outside the country, observers resort to monitoring North Korean media for clues.

Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute thinktank in Seoul questioned the authenticity of the NIS report, pointing out that Hyon was still making frequent appearances on state TV footage.

North Korea typically removes executed and purged officials from TV documentaries, but Hyon appeared multiple times in a TV documentary on live fire drills between 30 April and 11 May, according to the unification ministry in Seoul.

North Korean state media have not mentioned Hyon since 29 April, when it reported his presence at a music performance the previous day.

Cheong said the NIS had been “rash” in reporting the execution on the basis of “shaky, unconfirmed intelligence”. He added: “It needs to be verified, but is already being reported as fact by the media, which only adds to the confusion.”

Hyon’s reported death fits a pattern, however, coming weeks after the NIS claimed Kim had ordered the execution of 15 senior officials so far this year, apparently for questioning his authority. In all, around 70 officials have been executed since Kim became leader, Yonhap quoted the NIS as saying.

In January, he executed Gen Pyon In-son, head of operations in the army, for disagreeing with him. He also executed about 50 officials last year on charges ranging from corruption to watching South Korean soap operas.

Kim’s decision to cancel his much-anticipated appearance in Moscow last week, citing “internal issues”, lends weight to the theory that he is in the midst of yet another round of purges.

Initial doubts over whether Kim, a young and inexperienced leader when he succeeded his late father, Kim Jong-il, would be able to retain his grip on power persist more than three years after he became the third member of the Kim dynasty to rule the reclusive state.

“North Korean internal politics is very volatile these days,” said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership and contributor to the 38 North thinktank. “Internally, there does not seem to be any respect for Kim Jong-un within the core and middle levels of the North Korean leadership.

“There is no clear or present danger to Kim Jong-un’s leadership or stability in North Korea, but if this continues to happen into next year, then we would seriously have to start looking at a contingency plan for the Korean peninsula.”

Hyon, a little-known general, was promoted to the rank of vice-marshal of the North Korean army in 2012. The South Korean spy agency told lawmakers that Ma Won-chun, known as North Korea’s chief architect of new infrastructure under Kim, was also purged, local media reported.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul, said that the reported purges in Pyongyang did not necessarily mean that Kim’s grip on power was weakening.

“The common assumption is that it’s bad for stability, but I’m not so sure,” Lankov said. “The young boy is not necessarily popular with the military, so he wants to show that he’s in control and he’s the boss.”