North Korean official who was reportedly executed wanted nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, blamed US for arms race
A South Korean newspaper citing an unidentified source reported that Kim Hyok Chol, a top North Korean envoy in the nuclear negotiation with the US, was executed by Pyongyang
A South Korean newspaper has reported that North Korea executed its former top nuclear envoy to the United States along with four other foreign ministry officials in March after the failed summit between Chairman Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump the previous month.
An unidentified source told South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper that Kim Hyok Chol was executed by firing squad after being charged with espionage after he was allegedly co-opted by the US.
Hyok Chol, who led working-level negotiations for the February summit in Hanoi, reportedly became the victim of an internal purge undertaken by Kim after the summit broke down without a deal, Bloomberg reports.
While Kim Hyok Chol hasn't received any recent mentions in state media dispatches, speculation about his fate was rife for months. That said, previous claims from South Korean media about officials in North Korea being executed have proven false.
According to the Chosun Ilbo report, Kim Jong Un’s top aide Kim Yong Chol is undergoing hard labor following the summit.
Nonetheless, South Korea’s Presidential Blue House has advised media not to jump to conclusions without confirming the report. “We think that hasty judgment or commenting on this situation is not appropriate,” it said.
Since the failed Vietnam summit, talks between the U.S. and North Korea have stalled. Stephen Biegun, the US nuclear envoy to North Korea, is planning to meet with Japanese and South Korean negotiators in Singapore this weekend.
President Trump called off talks during the February summit after Kim Jong Un may have overplayed his hand by offering too few nuclear disarmament steps in exchange for substantial sanctions relief, analysts said.
Kim Hyok Chol’s appointment as Biegun’s counterpart earlier this year surprised North Korea observers. While the career diplomat was known for his expertise in nuclear deterrence against the US., one South Korean outlet highlighted him in footage from a White House meeting between Trump and North Korean officials, asking who he was.
However, Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in South Korea, said he wasn't sure if the Chosun report was credible. According to him, such executions would be domestically construed as an attempt by Kim Jong Un to shift the blame for the failure of a summit that was highly publicized within North Korea.
“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.”
According to Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul for the Center for a New American Security, the North Korean leader may have received a faulty assessment from his team about Washington's position and was thereby left without a "Plan B" when Trump rejected his offer. But if the Chosun report is legitimate, it could mean further delays in resuming the bilateral talks.
“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.
Rodong Sinmun, one of North Korea's most popular newspapers, added to the speculation with an editorial on Thursday.
“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 judgment,” it read.
Kim Hyok Chol hailed from an elite North Korean family and made his international debut just weeks before the Hanoi summit, when he was appointed Pyongyang’s new point man for nuclear negotiations.
The high ranking diplomat has previously led a number of previous international nuclear negotiations. According to Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, Kim Hyok Chol was also well versed in the details of the six-party talks that took place a decade ago.
“He also knows what North Korea would be willing to give and not -- such as revealing the amount of nuclear material, nuclear weapons, and missile trajectories,” Kim Hyun-wook said in an interview.
In 2015, Hyok Chol became North Korea's ambassador to Spain. However, he was expelled by Madrid in response to North Korea's nuclear and missile tests. Furthermore, he unusually had a considerable social media presence, appearing on quite a few YouTube videos urging the US to drop sanctions that were choking North Korea's economy.
In 2015, he told Elcano Royal Institute, a Spanish think tank, that North Korea sought to remove nuclear weapons from the entire Korean Peninsula for decades. However, it was forced to scale up its own nuclear arsenal to defend a potential US attack.
"I hope the US in the future acknowledges that these sanctions on my country is useless and change their policies,” he said in the interview, which was later posted on YouTube.