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North’s ex-nuke envoy executed

Ominous tone from state media echoes Chosun Ilbo report

June 01,2019
North Korea executed its former top nuclear envoy to the United States and other diplomats in March following the unsuccessful summit between its leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, the Chosun Ilbo reported Friday.

Kim Hyok-chol, North Korea’s special representative for U.S. affairs, and four senior officials of the Foreign Ministry were executed at Mirim Airport in Pyongyang, according to a North Korean source.

“They were charged with being won over by the United States and betraying the leader,” the paper quoted the source as saying.

Following the breakdown of the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February, political purges of elite officials who handled the negotiations were also said to have taken place, as was suspected, as no reports were made about their public activities. It was, however, the first time that executions of diplomats, including the special representative to the United States, were reported.

Kim Yong-chol, the former counterpart of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was sent to a concentration camp in Chagang Province near the Chinese border for forced labor and ideology re-education, according to the report. Seoul’s intelligence authorities said in April that Kim was dismissed from his post as the head of the Workers’ Party’s Unification Front Department (UFD), which handles inter-Korean affairs and negotiations with the United States.

Kim Song-hye, a senior official of the UFD, and Shin Hye-yong, the North Korean leader’s interpreter at the Hanoi summit, were also sent to political prisons, the report said.

Shin, the newly-hired interpreter of Kim, was punished for having made critical mistakes in interpretation during the summit, the report said.

After Trump declared that there would be no deal, Kim hurriedly said “I have one proposal,” but she failed to translate this last-minute remark, a diplomatic source was quoted as saying.

According to the report, the North Korean leader also ordered his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, the first deputy director of the Workers’ Party, to keep a low profile. She has accompanied Kim Jong-un on key overseas trips, including the Hanoi summit. She is also the highest-level North Korean official ever to visit the South, as she led the North Korean delegation for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last year.

South Korean authorities, including the Blue House and the Unification Ministry, refused to verify the report.

“I cannot confirm the report,” a senior presidential aide said Friday morning.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) also did not issue an official statement, but Rep. Lee Eun-jae of the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Friday that the NIS is following up on the situation, and various possibilities are being left open.

According to Lee, the NIS told her that Kim Yo-jong has had no public appearances for some time, so it is trying to find her whereabouts.

The South Korean spy agency also told Lee that it has no additional information to confirm the report. “I am not sure if it really does not have information, or if it does have an answer but is refusing to give it to us in order to please the North,” Lee said.

The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s Workers’ Party, hinted at bloody purges of elite officials on Thursday, although it did not specifically mention executions or purges related to the Hanoi summit.

“It is an anti-Party, anti-revolutionary act to pretend to be revering the Leader [Kim Jong-un] in front of him when you actually dream of something else,” the newspaper said in a commentary, warning that “two-faced” officials will face the “stern judgment of the revolution.”

“There are traitors and turncoats who only memorize words of loyalty toward the Leader and even change according to the trend of the time,” it said, adding that loyalty doesn’t automatically come with experience and years of service.

This is the first time since 2013 that the North’s state newspaper used expressions hinting at a massive purge. The last time the Rodong Sinmun used terms such as “anti-party, anti-revolutionary act” and “stern judgment” was when Kim executed Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and mentor, in December 2013.

In April, there were some signs that Kim purged officials who steered the failed nuclear negotiations with Trump in February. Based on a briefing by the NIS, a lawmaker on the Intelligence Committee said Kim Yong-chol was replaced by Jang Kum-chol as the head of the UFD of the Workers’ Party. At the time, experts in the South said the North Korean leader decided to restructure the powerful department so that it will only handle inter-Korean affairs while giving more power to its Foreign Ministry to handle negotiations with the United States.

North Korean leader Kim visited Russia for a summit with President Vladimir Putin in April, and Kim Yong-chol, who had accompanied the North Korean leader on all his overseas trips, was not a part of the delegation, fueling speculation about a political purge.

Choe Son-hui, a top diplomat who led Pyongyang’s negotiations with Washington in the lead up to the summit in Hanoi, was promoted to first vice minister of foreign affairs and accompanied the North Korean leader on his trip to Russia.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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