(Bloomberg) -- North Korea executed its former top nuclear envoy to the U.S. and four other foreign ministry officials in March after a failed summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.
Kim Hyok Chol, who led working-level negotiations for the February summit in Hanoi, was executed by firing squad after being charged with espionage after allegedly being co-opted by the U.S., the newspaper said Friday, citing an unidentified source. The move was part of an internal purge Kim undertook after the summit broke down without any deal, it said.
Speculation has swirled for months about the fate of Kim Hyok Chol, who hasn’t received any recent mentions in state media dispatches. Previous South Korean media reports about senior North Korean officials being executed following the talks have proven false.
Kim Jong Un’s top aide Kim Yong Chol, who was also involved in the summit, is reportedly undergoing hard labor, according to the Chosun Ilbo report.
South Korea’s Presidential Blue House wouldn’t confirm the report on Friday, and advised media not to jump to conclusions. “We think that hasty judgement or commenting on this situation is not appropriate,” it said.
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea have stalled since the Vietnam summit, with no plans to get them back underway. Stephen Biegun, the Trump administration’s nuclear envoy to North Korea, plans to meet with Japanese and South Korean negotiators this weekend in Singapore.
The February summit collapsed abruptly, with Trump calling off the talks. Analysts said Kim Jong Un may have overplayed his hand by seeking too much sanctions relief and offering too few nuclear disarmament steps in return.
A career diplomat known for his expertise in nuclear deterrence against the U.S., Kim Hyok Chol’s appointment earlier this year as Biegun’s counterpart surprised North Korea watchers. One South Korean television outlet drew a circle around him in a video from a White House meeting between Trump and North Korean officials, asking who he was.
A Big Risk
Kim Dong-yub, professor specializing in North Korea at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in South Korea, said was skeptical that the Chosun report was credible. This type of political execution would be seen domestically as an attempt by the North Korean leader to shift blame for a summit that was well-publicized within the secretive state, he said.
“It would mean that Kim Jong Un’s admitting to his own failure,” the professor said, adding that “that could damage Kim’s authority on his own leadership, a risk that he is highly unlikely to take.”
Kim Jong Un may have gone into the summit with a faulty assessment from his team of Washington’s position and got caught flat-footed without a “Plan B” after Trump rejected North Korea’s disarmament offer, said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul for the Center for a New American Security. If the Chosun report is true, it may mean more delays for the sputtering nuclear talks, she said.
“Perhaps this explains why Pyongyang has been ghosting Washington and Seoul since Hanoi because it might have needed to clean house and regroup before negotiating again,” she said.
North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, one of its most prominent dailies, added to the speculation with an editorial Thursday, using language similar to previous opinion pieces that have coincided with executions.
“Those that pretend to serve the leader to his face and having different goals and dreaming different dreams behind his back, those that have thrown away their loyalty and ethics, those who are anti-party, anti-revolution, cannot escape a heavy judgement,” it said.
A career diplomat from an elite North Korean family, Kim Hyok Chol made his international debut a few weeks before the Hanoi summit as Pyongyang’s new point man for nuclear negotiations, taking diplomats by surprise.
He became North Korea’s ambassador to Spain from 2015. Two years later, Madrid expelled him in retaliation for North Korean nuclear and missile tests. He has also ventured where few North Korean diplomats go -- social media, appearing in videos posted to YouTube calling for the U.S. to drop sanctions choking North Korea’s economy.
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