SEOUL • North Korea executed its special envoy to the United States following the collapse of the second summit between its leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, a South Korean newspaper reported.
The Chosun Ilbo said yesterday that Mr Kim Hyok Chol, who laid the groundwork for the Hanoi meeting and accompanied Mr Kim Jong Un on his private train, was executed by firing squad for "betraying the supreme leader", after he was "won over to the US" during pre-summit negotiations.
"He was accused of spying for the United States for poorly reporting on the negotiations without properly grasping US intentions," the newspaper quoted an unidentified source as saying.
"Kim Hyok Chol was executed in March at Mirim Airport along with four senior Foreign Ministry officials following an investigation," the source said. The other officials were not named.
When asked about the account, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was trying to verify it. "We've seen the reporting to which you're referring. We're doing our best to check it out," he told reporters during a visit to Berlin.
The February summit in the Vietnamese capital, the second between Mr Kim Jong Un and Mr Trump, failed to reach a deal because of conflicts over US calls for complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.
Previously, some North Korean officials have reportedly been executed or purged, only to reappear with a new title.
A diplomatic source told Reuters that there were signs Mr Kim Hyok Chol and other officials were punished for the breakdown of the summit, such as being sent to a labour camp for re-education, but there was no evidence that they were executed.
Mr Kim Hyok Chol was seen as a rising star when he was appointed to spearhead working-level talks with US nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun weeks before the Hanoi summit. But little was known about his expertise or the role he undertook during those talks.
The other four officials who were said to have been executed alongside him included diplomats working on Vietnam relations, the Chosun report said.
"This is a man who might provide some tactical advice to the leader but is otherwise a message bearer with little negotiating or policymaking latitude," said Mr Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Centre. "(They) put in someone like Kim Hyok Chol to insulate (Vice-Foreign Minister) Choe Son Hui and more substantive diplomatic personnel. To a certain degree, he is expendable and his superiors are not."
Mr Kim Yong Chol, who was Mr Kim Jong Un's right-hand man and the counterpart of Mr Pompeo before the Hanoi summit, had also been sent to a labour and re-education camp in Jagang province near the Chinese border, the Chosun Ilbo reported.
Among the penalised officials were Ms Kim Song Hye, who led preparations as part of Mr Kim Yong Chol's team, and Ms Shin Hye Yong, then a newly elevated interpreter for the Hanoi summit. They were said to have been detained in a camp for political prisoners.
The diplomatic source said Ms Kim's punishment seemed inevitable because she was a "prime author" of the North's plan to secure sanctions relief in return for dismantling the Yongbyon main nuclear complex.
The idea was rejected by the US.
Ms Shin was charged with making critical interpretation mistakes that included missing an unspecified "last-minute offer" that the North Korean leader supposedly made as Mr Trump was about to walk out, Chosun reported.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS