Did Kim Jong Un Actually Execute His Nuclear Negotiators?

North Korea experts urge caution over the revelation, noting that previous reports of summary executions proved false.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sit with their respective delegations for the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sit with their respective delegations for the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

An unconfirmed report that North Korea executed senior diplomats following failed nuclear talks between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un has underscored how badly negotiations have run aground, and it suggested that Pyongyang may be reverting back to past practices.

But is the report accurate? As with many things in North Korea, it’s unclear. The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative South Korean newspaper, made waves in Seoul and Washington on Friday with the bombshell revelation that Pyongyang allegedly killed its own diplomats, highlighting the distinctive brutality of the North Korean government and the uncertainty of Trump’s high-stakes negotiations with the country.

But the Chosun Ilbo report was based on a single anonymous source, prompting former U.S. intelligence officials and longtime North Korea watchers to urge caution. “We need to be cautious in reacting to this. We need to take it with a grain of salt,” said Bruce Klingner, an expert on North Korea at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA deputy division chief for Korea.

Despite the unanswered questions, officials and experts believe the North Korean dictator is unhappy with the impasse and is ratcheting up his threats. North Korean state media outlets have rebuked senior U.S. officials, and Pyongyang resumed the testing of short-range missiles and other small projectiles in early May.

The Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korea executed five of its diplomats, including Kim Hyok Chol, a senior envoy for talks with Washington. Another top interlocutor and longtime regime survivalist, former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong Chol, was sentenced to hard labor. Their punishment was reportedly meted out after talks in February between Trump and Kim broke down and both leaders went home from their summit in Vietnam empty-handed.

Even the most seasoned Western officials and experts on North Korea struggle to discern fact from fiction and rumor from truth when it comes to the notoriously opaque and closed-off country. News developments rarely trickle out, as North Korea’s government maintains an iron grip over all aspects of society. This leaves analysts forced to cobble together incomplete and disparate puzzle pieces to form a picture of the country’s shifting power structure.

“It is extremely difficult to get any information from North Korea, part on the inner workings of the regime. And then, any information you do get is incredibly difficult to corroborate,” said Naoko Aoki, a nuclear security fellow at the Rand Corp.

The Chosun Ilbo, along with other prominent South Korean news outlets and the South Korean government itself, has a mixed track record when it comes to shedding light on developments in North Korea. In the past, South Korean intelligence officials and media outlets have reported that North Korean officials were executed, only to have them emerge alive months later with different jobs. But they have also been right about other such stories.

“The story is entirely plausible, but North Korean officials have a habit of disappearing multiple times, then reappearing alive and well,” said Jung H. Pak, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and former senior CIA analyst.

One potential hint that backs up the report comes from North Korean media: The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Thursday condemned unspecified “betrayers, turncoats” to North Korea who would face “stern judgment of the revolution.”

For now, neither the U.S. nor South Korean government has confirmed or denied the news. “We’ve seen the reporting,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a press conference in Berlin on Friday. “We’re doing our best to check it out. I don’t have anything else to add to that today.”

North Korea has no scruples with executing top officials, from those who fell out of favor with Kim to those who simply fell asleep in meetings with him. North Korea has also assassinated high-profile defectors abroad, including Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong Un, who was brazenly killed by a nerve agent in a Malaysian airport in 2017.

Given the nature of the regime, some experts expected that officials involved in the breakdown of negotiations in Hanoi to be punished in some way, whether through purges or executions. Trump walked away from talks with Kim after the North Korean leader refused to budge on dismantling his country’s nuclear weapons program before an end to crippling sanctions, catching many Western observers—and, by all accounts, North Korea—by surprise.

“Regardless of whether Kim Hyok Chol was executed or in a labor camp, Kim Jong Un was clearly not happy with what happened in Hanoi,” Pak said.

“In a system like North Korea, something like this happening is entirely reasonable,” said Sue Mi Terry, a scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. Kim “is temperamental, short-fused, thin-skinned. He doesn’t care about how he’s perceived internationally,” she said. “Somebody has to be the fall guy for this failure, and it’s not going to be Kim Jong Un.”

The report, if accurate, presents another potential setback for the Trump administration’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Working-level talks have stalled both between Washington and Pyongyang and between Pyongyang and Seoul. North Korea has gone radio silent despite outreach from top U.S. officials, including State Department special envoy Stephen Biegun, according to South Korean diplomats and former U.S. officials. (The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.)

Despite the impasse, Trump said he is still willing to talk with Kim and downplayed the significance of new weapons tests, saying he was not “personally bothered” by them. “My people think it could have been a violation, as you know. I view it differently,” Trump said during a visit to Japan on Monday. “I view it as a man—perhaps he wants to get attention and perhaps not. Who knows? It doesn’t matter.”

Klingner of the Heritage Foundation remains skeptical that Trump can clinch a final deal with Kim, whether or not the small cadre of North Korean diplomats who worked on U.S. negotiations are still alive or in labor camps. “There’s not a magic Rubik’s cube combination of benefits we can offer North Korea to get them to just hand over their nukes,” he said.

“Both the top-down and bottom-up processes from Washington have consistently shown that North Korea is not ready to abandon its nuclear arsenal. So far the two sides remain very far apart, even on the definition of denuclearization.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer