(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has executed its special envoy to the United States on spying charges, as its leader, Kim Jong-un, has engineered a sweeping purge of the country’s top nuclear negotiators after the breakdown of his second summit meeting with President Trump, a major South Korean daily reported on Friday.
Kim Hyok-chol, the envoy, was executed by firing squad in March at the Mirim airfield in a suburb of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest daily, reported on Friday, citing an anonymous source. Mr. Kim faced the charge that he was “won over by the American imperialists to betray the supreme leader,” the newspaper said.
Four officials of the North Korean Foreign Ministry were also executed, the South Korean daily reported, without providing any hint of who its source might be or how it obtained the information.
South Korean officials could not confirm the Chosun Ilbo report. North Korea has not reported any execution or purge of top officials in recent months. The country remains the world’s most isolated, and outside intelligence agencies have sometimes failed to figure out or have misinterpreted what was going on in the closely guarded inner circles of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
But some signs in recent weeks have led analysts in South Korea to speculate that Mr. Kim may be engineering a reshuffle or a purge of his negotiating team in the wake of the summit meeting, held in February in Hanoi, Vietnam. The meeting was widely seen as a huge embarrassment for Mr. Kim, who is supposedly seen as infallible in his totalitarian state.
On Thursday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, carried a commentary warning against “anti-party, anti-revolutionary acts” of officials who “pretend to work for the supreme leader in his presence but secretly harbor other dreams behind his back.”
“Such characters won’t escape the stern judgment from the revolution,” the North Korean newspaper said. North Korean state media has issued such warnings when it needed to engineer a political purge or warn against possible lagging loyalty among the elites, South Korean analysts said.
Chosun Ilbo, the South Korean newspaper, reported Friday that Kim Yong-chol, a senior Workers’ Party vice chairman who visited the White House as the main point man for diplomacy with the United States, had also been purged, sentenced to forced labor in a remote northern province.
Also sent to a prison camp was Kim Song-hye, a senior female nuclear negotiator who teamed up with Kim Hyok-chol in working-level negotiations ahead of the Kim-Trump summit, the South Korean newspaper said. North Korea even sent a summit translator to a prison camp for committing a translation mistake, it said.
During the Hanoi summit meeting, Mr. Kim demanded that Mr. Trump lift the most painful international sanctions against his country in return for partially dismantling his country’s nuclear weapons facilities. The meeting collapsed when Mr. Trump rejected the proposal, insisting on a quick and comprehensive rollback of the North’s entire weapons of mass destruction program before lifting sanctions.
Mr. Kim took a long train ride to Hanoi to meet Mr. Trump, and North Korean state media reported high expectations for the summit meeting. But Mr. Kim had to return home empty-handed, without the sanctions relief that he badly needed to help ease his country’s deepening economic isolation.
Outside analysts have since wondered whether Mr. Kim’s negotiating team had failed to prepare him for such a breakdown in the talks or considered how Mr. Kim might react.
Kim Hyok-chol was appointed as North Korea’s special envoy only weeks before the Hanoi summit and had led pre-summit working-level negotiations with Stephen Biegun, Mr. Trump’s special envoy on North Korea.
Their negotiations could not narrow wide differences between their governments over the terms under which North Korea would give up its nuclear arsenal. As a consequence, Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump met without having crafted a draft agreement, as the negotiators from both sides left it to their leaders to sort out the thorniest problems that have bedeviled negotiations for decades.
Kim Yong-chol, the Workers’ Party leader, has seemed to disappear from state news media in recent weeks. Although he retained some of his top posts during a parliamentary meeting in April, he was replaced as head of the United Front Department, a key party agency in charge of relations with South Korea and the North’s intelligence affairs.
Both Kim Hyok-chol and Kim Yong-chol were absent from the North Korean delegation when Kim Jong-un met last month with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. In their places were senior officials from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, like Minister Lee Yong-ho and First Vice Minister Choe Son-hui, who have emerged as the new faces of North Korean diplomacy.
Mr. Kim has said he will give Washington until the end of the year to make a new denuclearization proposal he can accept, or he may abandon his diplomacy with Mr. Trump. As if to press the point, North Korea has recently resumed tests of short-range missiles.
Even Kim Jong-il’s sister and adviser, Kim Yo-jong, did not accompany Mr. Kim to the meeting with Mr. Putin, although she has been a fixture in high-profile summit meetings with American, Chinese and South Korean leaders.
Chosun Ilbo said the sister may have been reprimanded by Mr. Kim or may be sick with pneumonia.
Jung Chang-hyun, head of the Korean Peace and Economy Institute, a research group affiliated with South Korea’s Moneytoday news media group, said he had heard that four North Korean Foreign Ministry officials were executed by firing squad around March, not because of the breakdown of the Hanoi summit meeting, but rather for a separate corruption scandal.
It remained unclear whether the four officials included Kim Hyok-chol, said Mr. Jung, an expert on the North Korean regime and author of books on the North. But Mr. Jung said that officials under Kim Jong-un’s sister were also involved in the corruption scandal and that as a consequence, Ms. Kim was put on probation by her brother. Mr. Jung said he acquired the information from third-country sources who meet or communicate with North Korean officials through China.
Since taking power seven years ago, Kim Jong-un has engineered a series of bloody political purges to remove or execute many of the top officials who had served under his late father, Kim Jong-il, and consolidate his own leadership. The most prominent victim has been Jang Song-thaek, Mr. Kim’s uncle, who was executed in the Mirim airfield in 2013 on charges of corruption and plotting a military coup against Mr. Kim.