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Has Kim Jong Un executed top envoys over his failed summit with Trump? Maybe, maybe not.

Fate of top North Korean diplomat unclear
  • A South Korean newspaper with a spotty record of accuracy says Kim Jong Un has had senior envoys executed over the failed Vietnam summit with President Trump.
  • It's impossible to verify the report on the inner workings of the isolated, secretive country, but if true it would be an "unprecedented" lashing out by Kim.
  • The reported "purge" comes amid stalled diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, and fears that tension will mount again in lieu of talks.

Seoul, South Korea -- A South Korean newspaper reported Friday that North Korea executed a senior envoy involved in nuclear negotiations with the U.S. as well as four other high-level officials. But as ever with North Korea, a country that closely guards its secrets, there are reasons to be cautious about the purported purge.

While North Korea hasn't used its propaganda services to comment, the report in the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily could be true. North Korea has previously executed scapegoats to atone for high-profile political flops, and the most recent summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump ended in failure, leaving Kim embarrassed on the world stage.

But it's important to note that both South Korean media and the government in Seoul have a history of reporting scoops about the inner workings of North Korea that turn out to be wrong. Supposedly executed officials have later appeared trotting alongside Kim on state TV after their reported demise.

Friday's report is based on a single, unidentified "source who knows about North Korea" - with no details about where that source got their information. The report so far hasn't been matched by any major media in Seoul or confirmed by government officials, even anonymously.

The newspaper's source said that senior envoy Kim Hyok Chol was executed at the Mirim airfield with four other officials from the North's Foreign Ministry for betraying Kim Jong Un after being won over by the U.S. Kim Hyok Chol led working-level negotiations as North Korea's special representative for U.S. affairs ahead of February's summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders in Hanoi.

FILE PHOTO: Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea's special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi
Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea's special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, in a Feb. 23, 2019 file photo. REUTERS

The source also said that Kim Yong Chol, who had worked as North Korea's top nuclear negotiator and met with Mr. Trump at the White House while setting up the summits, was sentenced to hard labor and ideological re-education.

A North Korea expert who has experience negotiating with the country for the U.S. government told CBS News on Friday that if the report is confirmed, it would represent an "unprecedented" attack by Kim on his Foreign Ministry. The expert, who spoke off the record, said it was known that North Korea had recalled its ambassador to Vietnam, who has past experience negotiating with the U.S., but it was unclear why. 

Seoul's spy service said it could not confirm Friday's report, while the presidential Blue House said that "it's inappropriate to make hasty judgments or comments."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Berlin that he had seen the reports and the U.S. was "doing our best to check it out."

Pyongyang's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Thursday called out unspecified "betrayers, turncoats who demonstrate their loyalty to (the supreme leadership) only in words, and, even worse, change their colors by the flow of trends" and said they would come under the "stern judgment of the revolution."

History of fact and folly

If Friday's report is wrong, it would not be the first time for South Korean media and officials.

South Korean intelligence officials in 2016 said that Kim Jong Un had Ri Yong Gil, a former North Korean military chief, executed for corruption and other charges. North Korea's state media months later showed that Ri was alive and in possession of several new senior posts.

In 2013, the Chosun Ilbo reported that Hyon Song Wol, a famous North Korean artist the newspaper described as Kim's "ex-girlfriend," was executed in public along with several other performers over accusations that they filmed themselves having sex and selling the videos.

Hyon, the leader of Kim's hand-picked Moranbong all-female band, was very much alive and later emerged as a key member of Kim's government, accompanying him in his meetings with Mr. Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

South Korea does sometimes get it right, however.

Kim Jong Un defends execution of uncle

While many questioned the competence of the South Korean spy service after it failed to learn of the 2011 death of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, before Pyongyang's state TV announced it, the intelligence agency saved face in 2013 by releasing its finding that Kim's powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was purged, days before North Korea announced his execution.

Diplomatic stalemate could turn ugly

That the report was snapped up by global media reflects the hunger for any details about what's going on in North Korea as diplomatic efforts falter between Washington and Pyongyang, which tightly controls its media and both local and foreign access to information.

Negotiations have hit a stalemate because the North wants an end to crippling sanctions, but Washington says Pyongyang is not providing enough disarmament to allow that to happen.

There is now growing concern that the diplomacy that has blossomed since early 2018 could be replaced by a return to the animosity that in 2017 caused some of the most realistic fears of war in years as the North staged a string of increasingly powerful weapons and Kim and Mr. Trump traded intensely personal threats and insults.

Since the Hanoi nuclear summit ended in failure, North Korea has again tested weapons and boosted its belligerent rhetoric toward American and South Korean officials. Analysts believe this indicates Pyongyang is trying to show displeasure for the current impasse without destroying the diplomacy.

Trump and Abe discuss North Korea, trade and Iran during Japan visit

Mr. Trump said earlier this week that he isn't "personally" concerned about North Korea testing short-range missiles and that the launches don't violate United Nations Security Council rules -- an opinion he said runs counter to that of his advisers. Mr. Trump made the comments in Japan during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also disagreed with the U.S. president on the missile tests.

"My people think it could have been a violation," Mr. Trump said Monday. "I view it differently."

Mr. Trump has said he established a good relationship with Kim, despite the regime's unwillingness to take steps towards dismantling its nuclear weapons program. 

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