(Bloomberg) — North Korea’s top nuclear envoy who was reportedly executed is actually alive and in custody, CNN reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
Kim Hyok Chol, who led working-level negotiations for the February summit in Hanoi between President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong Un, is being investigated for his role in the failure to reach a deal, CNN reported Tuesday. South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon Chul told foreign correspondents at a briefing he has nothing to share about the reported purge in North Korea.
The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative South Korean daily, sparked global intrigue over the fate of Kim Hyok Chol when it reported Friday he had been executed by firing squad after being charged with espionage as part of an internal purge. Chosun Ilbo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Speculation has swirled for months about the fate of Kim Hyok Chol, who hasn’t received any recent mentions in state media dispatches. Mysterious personnel changes in secretive Pyongyang since the summit have fueled speculation that Kim could be changing negotiating tactics.
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea have stalled since the Vietnam summit, with no plans to get them back underway. Officials from South Korea and the U.S. couldn’t confirm or deny the Chosun Ilbo report, a reflection of the opacity of Kim’s regime.
Analysts said Kim Jong Un may have overplayed his hand by seeking too much sanctions relief and offering too few nuclear disarmament steps in return. Stephen Biegun, the Trump administration’s nuclear envoy to North Korea and Kim Hyok Chol’s counterpart, said the president would continue to seek talks with Kim Jong Un.
Previous South Korean media reports about senior North Korean officials falling out of favor and being executed have proven false. The Chosun Ilbo has erroneously reported singer Hyon Song Wol was executed in 2013. She was named as having attended watching a performance with Kim Jong Un earlier this week, according to state media Korea Central News Agency.
“I cannot imagine that Kim Hyok Chol misinterpreted the U.S. position and misled his bosses into believing that sanctions relief is possible. He is not senior enough to make such a judgment,” Chun Yungwoo, South Korea’s former top envoy to international nuclear talks with North Korea, said before the CNN report.
A career diplomat from an elite North Korean family, Kim Hyok Chol made his international debut a few weeks before the Hanoi summit as Pyongyang’s new point man for nuclear negotiations, taking diplomats by surprise.
(Adds South Korea’s unification minister in second paragraph, background on envoy in last paragraph.)
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