One of South Korea’s most influential newspapers reported Friday that North Korea executed its top envoy to the United States following February’s failed summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.
The reaction from some Korea watchers: a collective shrug.
It’s not that analysts doubt North Korea would carry out such a leadership purge; Pyongyang has in the past executed those it views as a threat to the ruling Kim family.
But South Korean newspapers have an inconsistent record of reporting such incidents. In some cases, North Korean figures reported to have been killed appeared in public weeks or months later.
The latest report came from the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest newspaper.
Lead North Korea negotiator
The conservative paper reported Kim Hyok Chol, who led negotiations with the United States ahead of the February Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, was executed in March along with four other senior officials “on charges of spying for America.”
Kim Yong Chol, Kim Jong Un’s “right-hand man,” was sent to a labor and re-education camp, the paper reported. Kim Song Hye, one of North Korea’s only senior female diplomats, was sent to a political prison camp, while Kim Jong Un’s translator at the Hanoi summit was likely sent to a prison camp for an “interpreting error,” it said.
The Chosun Ilbo did not say how it got the information, citing only “a source.”
North Korea has not responded to the report, but on Thursday ran a state media editorial warning of punishment against “anti-revolutionary” acts.
Asked about the report, a spokesperson at South Korea’s presidential office cautioned against “hasty conclusions.” Seoul’s Unification Ministry also declined to comment. Officials at the White House and State Department have not responded to VOA requests for reaction.
North Korean purges
It is notoriously difficult to get reliable information from North Korea, a totalitarian country that restricts all civil and political liberties of its citizens. That’s especially true of actions surrounding the country’s secretive leadership.
Kim Jong Un is believed to have carried out several purges of both senior and lower-level officials since taking power in 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Perhaps most notoriously, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle and mentor, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013.
But South Korean papers fairly frequently misreport those purges.
For instance, the Choson Ilbo reported in 2013 that Kim’s former girlfriend, the singer Hyon Song Wol, was publicly executed for violating North Korea’s pornography laws. She appeared in a public television performance a short time later.
“According to Chosun Ilbo, Hyon Song Wol has been dead since 2013. Even though she appeared at the Hanoi summit this year,” tweeted Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which produces the influential NK News website.
O’Carroll, who is based in Seoul but travels to North Korea, also says he was told by a source that Kim Hyok Chol, the North Korean envoy, “had been seen at the foreign ministry recently in Pyongyang.”
But the latest execution story is plausible to some analysts, especially since the Hanoi summit failure left Kim in a tricky position.
The summit ended abruptly at the end of February after Trump walked out and declared Kim was not ready to make a serious nuclear deal.
Kim wanted Trump to remove nearly all sanctions against North Korea, in exchange for partial dismantlement of his nuclear program. Trump insisted he would not remove any sanctions until Kim agreed to give up all his nuclear weapons.
Like his father and grandfather, Kim is treated in North Korean state propaganda as a flawless near-deity, not exactly the kind of person who comes back from a summit empty-handed.
“In North Korea when something like that happens it’s a different order of problem because the leader is infallible and nothing can ever go wrong,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, a veteran, British-based Korea watcher.
How to react
There are signs North Korean state organs didn’t know how to react to Kim’s failed summit.
Immediately after Kim returned from Hanoi, North Korean state media reported the meeting was a success. Only days later did they acknowledge the summit was fruitless, blaming the United States for making unreasonable demands.
In the weeks that followed, at least one report suggested North Korea executed some members of the Hanoi negotiating team, though those reports were vague and never corroborated.
“These rumors have been floating around for a while,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea watcher at the Middlebury Institute, on Twitter. “I am still not sure I believe them, but they are getting awfully specific.”
Foster-Carter, the British academic, agrees that the Choson Ilbo report is more detailed than other similar reports.
“I will stick my neck out and say I think it has the ring of truth,” he says. “It has quite a lot of incidental detail ... in other words, it sounds like an informed source.”
“Of course, you know this game. We have to be cautious. Commentators have gotten egg on their faces before by saying this Kim or that Kim had been executed and then back they come from the dead.”
If true, the executions would help explain why U.S. negotiators haven’t been able to meet with their North Korean counterparts in recent weeks.
It could also mean that Kim is feeling increasing domestic pressure, says Kim Seok-hyang, who focuses on North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“His own people are his biggest threat,” Kim says.
While North Korean elites largely express public support for Kim now, that could change if they see him failing on an international stage, she says.
Another hint: on Thursday, the Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of North Korea’s ruling party, carried an opinion piece railing against “anti-party, anti-revolutionary acts” against the country’s supreme leader.
“These are traitors and turncoats who only memorize words of loyalty toward the leader and even change according to the trend of time,” the paper said.
“Such people,” the paper said, “will not avoid the stern judgment of the revolution.”