A major South Korean newspaper reported Friday that North Korea had executed a top negotiator involved in Kim Jong Un’s failed summit with President Trump in February and punished a key aide.
Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, cited an unnamed, unspecified source as saying nuclear envoy Kim Hyok Chol was executed by firing squad in March for acting as a U.S. spy. Former military intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol, who hand-delivered a letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump, was sent to a labor camp near the Chinese border on similar charges, the report said.
“Kim Jong Un is believed to have ordered the purge,” the newspaper reported, saying that the moves were intended “to contain internal unrest and mounting public dissatisfaction” after the North Korean leader failed to secure relief from economic sanctions during his second tête-à-tête with Trump in Vietnam.
Government and intelligence officials in South Korea said Friday that they could not confirm the report. A representative of President Moon Jae-in cautioned local journalists not to jump to “rash judgments,” according to media reports.
South Korean media reports of purges and executions inside North Korea, one of the most closed-off societies in the world, have a checkered record of accuracy.
Chosun Ilbo, a conservative-leaning newspaper critical of engagement with the North, reported in 2013 that an ex-girlfriend of Kim Jong Un’s had been executed by firing squad. The woman, singer Hyon Song Wol, visited South Korea last year as part of a delegation attending the Winter Olympics.
South Korea’s main news agency, Yonhap, also reported the execution of a top general in early 2016, relying on South Korean government officials. A few months later, North Korean media reported Ri Yong Gil was not only alive and well but had been named to a number of key posts.
Friday’s report came from Kim Myong-song, a North Korean defector-turned-journalist who reports on South Korea’s unification ministry.
The report also said another official who had also participated in working-level negotiations in the lead-up to the Hanoi summit alongside Kim Hyok Chol and the interpreter who translated for Kim Jong Un had been sent to political prison camps.
Kang Chol Hwan, a North Korean defector who previously worked as a reporter for Chosun Ilbo, said that although it would make sense the officials would have fallen out of favor, information from North Korea often gets misinterpreted along the way.
“I’m sure [Kim Jong Un] needs to explain to party officials and close aides why things didn’t work out,” he said. “It takes time for the full story to come out.”
An execution would be far from extraordinary — a report published earlier this year by Kang’s organization, the North Korea Strategy Center, logged 421 purges and executions of officials since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.
Without giving any specifics, North Korean state media published commentary Thursday that “those who pretend to support the great leader and harbor other dreams behind their backs are engaging in anti-party, anti-revolutionary acts.”
“Such individuals will not be able to avoid the grave judgment of revolution,” the commentary said.
Kim Hyok Chol, the negotiator, was a former ambassador to Spain who only emerged as North Korea’s envoy in nuclear talks with the U.S. earlier this year.
Jean Lee, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang who now heads the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Korea Program, recounted in a blog post earlier this year that she showed him and other North Korea delegates around New York including stops at the New York Stock Exchange and a Target store.
Kim Hyok Chol, Lee wrote, is “conversant in English, congenial in nature” but at the end of the day “a bureaucrat tasked with carrying out the orders handed down to him by a leader who has a well-laid plan for how North Korea will deal with the United States.”
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies, said he was paying little heed to the reported purge.
“When a report about North Korea is wrong, there isn’t someone to say it’s wrong,” he said. “It’s not like the Press Arbitration Commission will get involved, or North Korea will complain.”