If North Korea decides to hold a third summit with Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un might be the only familiar face at the meeting. A South Korean newspaper reports that Kim ordered the executions of five officials involved in February’s Hanoi summit, including Pyongyang’s chief nuclear negotiator. Others have been sent to prison camps, including the translator involved in the Kim-Trump conversations.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) May 31, 2019
North Korea executed its nuclear envoy to the United States as part of a purge of officials who steered negotiations for a failed summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, a South Korean newspaper said on Friday.
Kim Hyok Chol was executed in March at Mirim Airport in Pyongyang, along with four foreign ministry officials after they were charged with spying for the United States, the Chosun Ilbo reported, citing an unidentified source with knowledge of the situation.
“He was accused of spying for the United States for poorly reporting on the negotiations without properly grasping U.S. intentions,” the source was quoted as saying.
The February summit in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, the second between Kim and Trump, failed to reach a deal because of conflicts over U.S. calls for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.
Kim Hyok Chol was Mike Pompeo’s counterpart in the negotiations. Pompeo told reporters in Berlin that he’s trying to verify the report:
The United States is attempting to check on reports that a senior North Korean official involved in Pyongyang’s non-proliferation talks with Washington has been executed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday.
“We’ve seen the reporting to which you are referring,” Pompeo told a news conference in Berlin in answer to a reporter’s question. “We’re doing our best to check it out. I don’t have anything else to add to that today.”
If it’s true, this could signal a shift back to the status quo ante for the Kim regime, Reuters analyst Hong Min suggests. The message to the US would be that such negotiations are over, and that “they are negating all they have discussed” with the previous team. It certainly would disincentivize any further discussion within the Kim regime of trying direct negotiations with the US again.
But is it true? The Associated Press reminds readers that supposedly executed North Korean officials have an occasional habit of showing up later in an ambulatory state:
While North Korea hasn’t used its propaganda services to comment, the report in the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily could be true. North Korea has previously executed scapegoats to atone for high-profile political flops, and the most recent summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump ended in failure, leaving Kim embarrassed on the world stage.
But it’s important to note that both South Korean media and the government in Seoul have a history of reporting scoops about the inner workings of North Korea that turn out to be wrong. Supposedly executed officials have later appeared trotting alongside Kim on state TV after their reported demise.
Friday’s report is based on a single, unidentified “source who knows about North Korea” — with no details about where that source got their information. The report so far hasn’t been matched by any major media in Seoul or confirmed by government officials, even anonymously.
What about the sourcing? It seems thin for a story of this kind, but that cuts another way too. It could very well be a manipulation, a clever bit of disinformation by Pyongyang itself. The Kim regime may have floated the rumor themselves as a means to shake up the diplomatic standoff and look for another opening. Either that, or perhaps a more mundane effort to make South Korean media look foolish, and by extension US media as well.
Still, it’s not as if North Korea never executes people for getting crosswise with Kim. If the media bit on a false lead, it’s because Kim has a nasty habit of killing people who disappoint him, including ordering a hit on his own brother in Kuala Lumpur with a VX attack that could have killed hundreds more. Don’t be too surprised if North Korea names new people to these positions in the next few days.