So far, the most important conclusion we can draw from reports North Korea’s senior nuclear negotiator and four foreign ministry officials were executed in March is this: Kim Jong Un is not the reliable, trustworthy negotiator President Trump has made him out to be.
According to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, a senior aide to leader Kim Jong Un was “sent to a labor and reeducation camp,” and two lower-level officials were imprisoned.
The detention of aide Kim Yong Chol, who led Pyonyang’s outreach to Washington for two Trump-Kim summits, had been known for more than a month, but many are questioning whether Kim Hyok Chol, the nuclear negotiator, was in fact put to death by a firing squad at an airport in the North.
Whatever the accuracy of the Chosun Ilbo reporting—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said he was looking into the matter—there is evidence of severe turmoil in Pyongyang political circles, and it appears Kim Jong Un’s grip on power has been weakening in recent months.
This increasingly evident turmoil undercuts the notion, advanced by Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, that Kim can negotiate in good faith on a range of issues from denuclearization to inter-Korean reconciliation.
The Chosun Ilbo article is based on a single “source” who was not identified in any way, and this has led many to suggest the stunning news is not accurate. Previous South Korean reports of executions in the North, including a 2013 Chosun Ilbo report, have in fact proven to be untrue. Moreover, the Friday article carried by the conservative-leaning paper may have been intended to embarrass the South’s “progressive” president, Moon.
Reuters, referring to the five individuals, cites an unidentified “diplomatic source” saying, in the words of the news organization, that “there was no evidence they were executed.”
“Seems like fake news to me,” a “White House official” was quoted as telling Harry Kazianis of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the National Interest about the execution report.
Although there should be skepticism, the story is nonetheless plausible given the rhetoric used by Rodong Sinmun, the official paper of the North’s Workers’ Party, in a commentary on Thursday warning about “anti-party” and “anti-revolutionary” elements, harsh language typically reserved for enemies of the regime.
The Chosun Ilbo reported that these words last appeared in 2013, at the time of the execution of Jang Song Thaek, the power-broker married to Kim Jong Un’s aunt.
Yet skepticism over one news story misses a larger point about the Pyongyang regime. Kim Hyok Chol has disappeared from sight as has, more significantly, Kim Yong Chol, described as Kim Jong Un’s “right-hand man.” Kim Yong Chol hand-delivered a letter from Kim to Trump in the Oval Office during a two-hour meeting just days before the June summit in Singapore, and Trump then called him “the second most powerful man in North Korea.”
The disappearances of senior figures fly in the face of claims that the North Korean system is now sturdy. There have been indications that the historic first summit between Trump and Kim last June raised expectations among both the North Korean elite and common folk that positive change was coming to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Trump’s four-minute video about the North’s bright future, showed to Kim in Singapore, may have had more effect than observers once suggested. By now it’s clear that rich and poor North Koreans were sorely disappointed by the breakdown in talks with Trump.
The Chosun Ilbo reported Friday—and this feels credible—that Kim Jong Un ordered the purges “to contain internal unrest and mounting public dissatisfaction over the failed summit.”
Even in advance of Hanoi, there were hints of anti-Kim feeling. On February 22, a few days before that meeting, activists intruded on the North’s embassy in Madrid, and there are suspicions that the raiders, members of activist group Free Joseon, had inside help, perhaps officials in Pyongyang. If the group had secret supporters, anti-regime elements are stronger than many believe. Kim Hyok Chol served as ambassador to Spain before becoming nuclear negotiator, by the way.
Kim Jong Un executed perhaps as many as 180 senior officials—and maybe 500 juniors—as he consolidated power after the surprise death of his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. Some, therefore, may argue that the killing of only five diplomats at this point cannot be a destabilizing factor.
Yet purges and killings at the beginning of a Kim ruler’s reign are expected, as he throws out old figures and replaces them with ones considered loyal. These executions, at a time of rising expectations and after a period of supposed political consolidation, therefore look different.
Purges—and especially killings—create enemies. Among other things, they can motivate regime figures to act. David Maxwell, who served five tours of duty with the U.S. Army in Korea and is now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted Friday morning that U.S. Forces Korea was always concerned about a “Mr. X scenario”: some insider assassinating a Kim leader because he felt threatened by purges and believed he could be “next on the list.”
Kim Hyok Chol was charged with “spying for the United States for poorly reporting on the negotiations without properly grasping U.S. intentions.” Kim rulers are notorious for killing others to divert blame for their own mistakes, but Kim Jong Un has in recent years refrained from mass bloodletting. Now, whether the five poor officials are dead or merely languishing in detention, Kim has started a potentially dangerous dynamic, and that is a sure sign he felt particularly insecure.
And when Kim leaders feel insecure, nothing good ever happens.