North Korea has reportedly executed five foreign ministry officials, including its special envoy to Washington, for the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February.
Kim Hyok-chol, a former ambassador to Spain, and four other ministry officials responsible for laying the groundwork for the summit were charged with espionage on behalf of the US and were executed at Mirim Airport, outside Pyongyang, in March, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.
Kim Yong-chol, who had held several rounds of talks with Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, in the run-up to the failed Hanoi summit was also sentenced to a term of forced labour and ideological re-education, it reported, citing sources in the North.
Two other officials were sent to political prison camps, including Shin Hye-young, who served as interpreter to Kim Jong-un during the talks.
The newspaper reported that Mr Shin had “undermined the authority of the highest dignity” of the North Korean dictator by making an error in a translation.
Kim Jong-un is reportedly carrying out a purgeof officials in an effort to divert attention away from internal problems, including international sanctions that are exerting additional pressure on the already impoverished economy.
It is also widely believed that Mr Kim is trying to deflect blame for the failure of the summit. Before leaving for Vietnam, he had expressed confidence that he would return victorious, with President Donald Trump agreeing to lift sanctions.
Mr Kim’s anger has even extended to his own sister, it appears, with Kim Yo-jong not seen in public since the dictator’s delegation returned to Pyongyang.
She did not appear in official coverage of public events attended by the ruling party’s authoritative politburo last month, reported the NK News website at the time.
Her absence could mean that she has been removed from the elite ruling committee. While she attended the parliamentary assembly meeting, her name was also not included on the list of alternate politburo members.
North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary on Thursday that “Acting like one is revering the Leader in front (of others) but dreaming of something else when one turns around, is an anti-Party, anti-revolutionary act that has thrown away the moral fidelity toward the Leader, and such people will not avoid the stern judgment of the revolution.”
“There are traitors and turncoats who only memorise words of loyalty toward the Leader and even change according to the trend of the time,” the commentary said.
It is the first time since the December 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, that expressions hinting at purging such as “anti-party, anti-revolutionary” and “stern judgment” appeared in Rodong Sinmun, Chosun Ilbo said.
“There have been many reports coming out of the North since the summit about executions of those that Mr Kim holds accountable and to distance himself from its failure”, said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor specialising in the North Korean leadership at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
“But it is also suggested that the ministry officials were too frightened to pass on Washington’s demands ahead of the talks because they feared that Mr Kim would be angry and they would be in trouble”, he told The Telegraph.
As a consequence, the North Korean leader went into the talks in the belief that the two sides were close to an agreement but was caught off guard when the US demanded that he shut down all five of the North’s known nuclear processing plants. Mr Kim had offered to close only one.
When it became apparent that an agreement was impossible, the US delegation cancelled the remainder of the summit.
In the intervening months, bilateral ties have once again become confrontational and the North has fired a number of short-range missiles as a sign of its displeasure.
On Wednesday, an article carried by the Korean Central News Agency quoted a foreign ministry analyst as saying, “There is no change at all in the American evil ambition to conquer the DPRK by force.”
It added: “[The] use of strength is not at all a monopoly of the United States”.
Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, said Mr Kim has shown a ruthless willingness to use executions as a tool to keep his people in line.
“The fact is that those closest to the leader are often the most at risk and North Korea is just brutal in that way”, he said.
“There are many plausible reasons for this latest purge, but we have seen in the past that these periodic culls are effective in keeping people in fear, although there is always the other argument that says if they become too frequent then they could lead to resistance and even revolution”.
Other analysts also expressed caution over the claims, saying reports of executions in the past have proven not true.