• Saturday, April 20, 2024
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North Korea executes officials over failed Kim-Trump talks

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North Korea executed Kim Hyok Chol, its special envoy to the US, and four other negotiators who participated in the failed February summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in Hanoi, in a crackdown on growing discontent in the communist state, according to a South Korean newspaper. A sixth official, Kim Yong Chol, the counterpart to US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in the run-up to the Hanoi summit, has been subjected to forced labour and ideological education, the Chosun Ilbo added.  Chosun, South Korea’s most widely circulated daily newspaper, cited an unnamed North Korean source as saying that Kim Hyok Chol was investigated and executed at Mirim Airport in March with the four foreign ministry officials.

Experts said the purge was designed to divert public attention from the failed Hanoi summit, at which Mr Trump rejected Mr Kim’s offer to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for sanctions relief.

The president demanded a comprehensive deal including the dismantling of North Korea’s other hidden nuclear sites. Nuclear talks have stalled and Mr Kim has set an end-of-the-year deadline to break the deadlock.

“Kim lost face internationally and came back home with no economic presents,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a think-tank. “Someone should take responsibility for it. Blood-shedding of this kind seems very normal under Kim’s dictatorship.” Kim Yong Chol is undergoing hard labour in Jagang province after his dismissal, the newspaper said.

Shin Hye Yong, the interpreter for Mr Kim at the Hanoi meeting, has also been detained at an internment camp for political prisoners for undermining his authority by making a critical mistake in interpretation, Chosun added.  Kim Yo Jong, Mr Kim’s sister, who has often accompanied her brother at big events, has not been seen in public since the Hanoi meeting.

Kim Yong Chol, centre, at a July meeting with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, right, in Pyongyang © Reuters
Kim Yong Chol, centre, at a July meeting with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, right, in Py

Despite its recent diplomatic outreach, North Korea remains the world’s most isolated country, making it difficult for external intelligence agencies to figure out the inner workings of the closely guarded society.

Seoul’s presidential Blue House, the country’s spy agency and the unification ministry in charge of dealing with North Korea did not deny the Chosun report and said they would investigate the claims.

But North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun hinted at the purge on Thursday. “Acting like one is revering the leader in front [of others] but dreaming of something else when one turns around, is an anti-party, anti-revolutionary act that has thrown away the moral fidelity towards the leader and such people will not avoid the stern judgment of the revolution,” it said.

“There are traitors and turncoats who only memorise words of loyalty towards the leader and even change according to the trend of the time.”

The piece marked the first time since the December 2013 execution of Jang Song Thaek, Mr Kim’s uncle and North Korea’s second most powerful man at the time, that Rodong has used expressions such as “anti-party, anti-revolutionary” and “stern judgment”.

Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un who regularly attends big events with her brother, at last year’s Singapore summit © EPA

Experts said the purge of high-ranking diplomats was expected after the Hanoi summit was cut short. They noted that suppression has intensified under the Kim regime and human rights conditions have deteriorated. The North Korean dictator is believed to have executed or purged about 340 individuals after taking power in 2012 until 2016, according to the state-run Institute for National Security Strategy. “The reign of terror has worsened in North Korea as the young leader cements his grip on power,” said Kim Tae-woo, a former head of Korea Institute for National Unification, a think-tank.  Reports of the crackdown came just days after the UN’s top human rights official warned that the desire for North Korean denuclearisation could overshadow the dire human rights situation in the country. North Korea has imprisoned people it deems to be against the regime for decades. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a non-governmental organisation based in Washington, estimates that there are more than 20 labour camps for ideological re-education in the country, in addition to six internment camps for political prisoners.