What is particularly chilling is that, among those who were supposedly executed, there were a large number that had participated in diplomatic efforts and discussions.
From the Amnesty International report, the relevant information on North Korea:
In North Korea, while the number of death sentences and executions reported in the media appeared to have declined in 2011, at least 30 executions were reported to have been carried out during the year. The figure however appears to be a gross underestimate of the reality of the death penalty in the country. No trials in North Korea meet international standards of fairness and due process, given the lack of independence of the judiciary and several problematic constitutional and legal provisions.I want to emphasize that, while this is plausible, it is also unconfirmed. One hopeful bit of thinking is that we've gotten many things wrong on North Korea in the past. DPRK intelligence is nobody's strong suit.
In January 2011 unconfirmed reports suggested that more than 200 officials had been detained by the State Security Agency in a move to consolidate the leadership succession of Kim Jong-un, raising concerns that some of them had been executed. In July 2011, Amnesty International received unconfirmed reports that North Korean authorities had either executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents 30 officials who had participated in inter- Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogues with South Korea. Public executions, including within political prison camps, are believed to have taken place throughout the year. Public executions are a breach of North Korea’s own penal code. In addition to the number of “judicial executions”, Amnesty International believes that a high number of extra-judicial executions are taking place in the country.
On 10 March 2011, the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions sent a communication to the government of North Korea regarding 37 reported cases of executions for economic crimes between 2007 and 2010.
And I say "hopeful" not because I feel sorry for apparatchiki who may themselves be culpable for the deaths or torture of everyday North Koreans, but because I think the very act of killing formerly loyal party members in order to hold onto power is, in North Korea's case, a sign that we have a long way to go before North Korea reforms.
This systemic killing, as I've written before, is moving even the elite to the same place the hoi polloi find themselves: inching ever closer to a point where they are more likely to die if they do nothing than if they do something. That could be dangerous for the regime, but North Korea also seems to have a much higher threshold for such decimation than countries like, say, those caught up in the Arab Spring.
Then again, one thing to consider is that this was all under the late Kim Jong-il, not his son. Maybe there is a reformer trying to get out of that body. Maybe the several dozen who were executed were hardliners fighting against reform. I have no reason to believe that's true or not true, but I can speculate that, if it true, perhaps this bloodletting brings North Korea closer to being a state where the government is actually willing to try Chinese-style reforms (which at this point I think are our best hope for real change in North Korea).