The conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported Friday that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un executed senior diplomat Kim Hyok-chol and sentenced two others to prison camps over President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from a summit with Kim Jong-un in February.
Trump blamed his exit on the North Korean negotiators’ intransigence in demanding an end to sanctions on the rogue communist state without guaranteeing that Kim would end his country’s illegal nuclear program.
Kim surprised the international community by appointing former ambassador to Spain Kim Hyok-chol to lead nuclear talks with the United States in February shortly before the Hanoi, Vietnam, summit with Trump that month. Following the dictator’s first meeting with Trump last year in Singapore, Kim Jong-un handed over 55 boxes of American soldier remains from the active period of the ongoing Korean War, but little other action followed. Trump refused to lift sanctions and Kim Jong-un insisted that he would denuclearize his country only if he received guarantees that his communist dynasty would survive such a move. The impasse moved Kim to reshape his diplomatic team.
Now, according to Chosun, he has left himself without a diplomatic team at all.
“Kim Hyok-chol, who was the counterpart of U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun in the runup to the [Vietnam] summit, was shot at Mirim Airport in March with four other senior officials on charges of spying for America,” Chosun reported, citing an unnamed source with knowledge of the execution.
The newspaper reports that 73-year-old Kim Yong-chol, a key strategist who met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and accompanied Kim Jong-un on his summits to South Korea, was sentenced to “a labor and reeducation camp.” The newspaper identifies two others – diplomat Kim Song-hye and translator Shin Hye-yong – who are also languishing in a prison camp following the Vietnam summit. Ri Son-gwon, a diplomat who had nothing to do with the talks and focused on South Korea policy, has reportedly also been “purged.” Chosun did not specify his fate.
Kim reportedly spared his sister, manager of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department Kim Yo-Jong, but told her to “lie low.” She has not made any public appearances in nearly three months, according to Chosun.
The newspaper’s sources say Kim Jong-un felt the purge necessary to “contain internal unrest,” but it has left him without diplomats.
“An intelligence source said Thursday that the purge is probably the reason the North has been so quiet in talks with South Korea. It has severely thinned out the ranks of the departments tasked with negotiating with the U.S. and South Korea,” Chosun reported. The leftist government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been seeking yet another summit with Kim for months but has failed to make meaningful contact with Kim’s envoys. Following the purge, it is now unclear who Seoul would need to reach out to for talks to happen.
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has also made public statements that he is willing to meet with Kim Jong-un without preconditions – a politically risky move given North Korea’s decades of mass abductions of Japanese citizens – but has also had little success in contacting the North Korean regime. As with South Korea, Japan’s relationship with North Korea is complicated by centuries of Japanese attempts at colonization and the brutal occupation during World War II.
The only know diplomatic activity Kim Jong-un is engaging in currently is sending a delegation to the rogue communist state of Cuba. That delegation was led by Ri Su Yong, a senior member of the communist Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and not a Foreign Ministry official, suggesting Kim had indeed thinned out his diplomatic bench.
Kim Jong-un, judging from North Korean state media preceding the summit, was extremely optimistic that his second in-person meeting with Trump would lead to an end to the unprecedentedly strict international sanctions his country is currently under. North Korean state media predicted a “major breakthrough.” Trump met with Kim for one of the two days and got on a plane home the next.
“Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump said following the summit, an explanation Kim’s team rejected. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, who went unmentioned in the Chosun purge report, told reporters Trump was lying. The North Koreans, he claimed, had offered the “realistic proposal” of shutting down the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility – a laboratory and reactor system where experts believe Pyongyang enriches nuclear material – in exchange for a full lifting of sanctions. Ri did not specify if North Korean would have shut down the facility permanently or provided guarantees, like international inspections, to ensure that the site was indeed inoperable.
Reports in American media this month, citing unknown American officials, claimed that Kim not only demanded an end to sanctions but visits to North Korea by “famous basketball players” to fully denuclearize.
Kim kept his personal ire private until a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in april.
“Kim Jong Un said that the situation on the Korean peninsula and the region is now at a standstill and has reached a critical point where it may return to its original state as the U.S. took a unilateral attitude in bad faith at the recent second DPRK-U.S. summit talks,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said after the two met in eastern Vladivostok, Russia.
“Peace and security on the Korean peninsula will entirely depend on the U.S. future attitude, and the DPRK will gird itself for every possible situation,” Kim reportedly added.