Dead or alive? Fate of key North Koreans is a guessing game

FPI / June 6, 2019

Western intelligence on North Korea is primarily limited to satellite photos, regional specialists readily admit. Its weakness in human intelligence (HUMINT) was again demonstrated by recent conflicting reports on the disappearance of key North Korean officials involved in the failed Hanoi summit between Kim Jong-Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

In the wake of the failed summit with Trump in February, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un reportedly carried out a purge of top officials.

Or did he?

From left, Kim Hyok-Chol, Kim Yong-Chol and Kim Yo-Jong

The North’s top negotiator in Hanoi, Kim Hyok-Chol was rumored to have been executed a month after the summit, while Kim Jong-Un’s right-hand man Kim Yong-Chol was reportedly sent to a labor and re-education camp, sources told The Chosun Ilbo.

Kim Hyok-Chol, who was the counterpart of U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun in the runup to the summit, was shot at Mirim Airport in March with four other senior officials on charges of spying for America, the source said.

Reuters subsequently reported it was unable to independently confirm the report. Previously, some North Korean officials who were reported to have been executed or purged reappeared later with new titles.

A spokeswoman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry declined to comment. An official at the presidential Blue House in Seoul said it was inappropriate to comment on an unverified report.

A South Korean lawmaker told Reuters in April that Kim Yong-Chol had been removed from a key party post.

Kim Hyok Chol was seen as a rising star when he was appointed to spearhead working-level talks with Biegun weeks before the Hanoi summit.

According to North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accompanied by an undated photo, Kim Jong-Un recently watched an art troupe’s performance, along with his top aides, including Kim Yong-Chol.

The leader attended the show “given by amateur art groups of the wives of officers of units of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) selected in the seventh round of the second-term contest of art groups of KPA officers’ wives,” KCNA reported.

According to the Chosun Ilbo, Kim Jong-Un is believed to have ordered the purge, which also swept up other officials in the negotiations, to contain internal unrest and mounting public dissatisfaction over the failed summit.

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