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The possible killing of top North Korean diplomats after the failed Trump summit, explained

If true, it’s a very big deal. But it could just as easily be fake news.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on September 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on September 19, 2018, in Pyongyang.
Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images

South Korea’s biggest newspaper reported Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had multiple officials — including the lead negotiator in nuclear talks with the United States — executed two months ago.

If true, it’s a massive revelation showing the brutality of the North Korean regime and the very real, human stakes involved in President Donald Trump’s diplomatic effort with Kim. But it’s wise to take this information with a grain of salt — a mountain of it, really — before jumping to any serious conclusions, since it could be, well, fake news.

But first, here’s what the Chosun Ilbo reported: After the February summit in Vietnam where Trump and Kim failed to reach a nuclear deal, the regime in March killed five diplomats by firing squad at a Pyongyang airport.

Among them was Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s top working-level nuclear negotiator, who served for months as America’s key counterpart. But per the paper, that high position didn’t save him; in fact, it may have led to his downfall since he made a good scapegoat. “He was accused of spying for the United States for poorly reporting on the negotiations without properly grasping US intentions,” according to the report’s only source.

The piece also added that Kim Yong Chol, one of North Korea’s top overall officials who visited the White House last year, has been subjected to hard labor and “ideological education.” He previously led nuclear talks for Pyongyang as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s counterpart.

It’s possible that North Korean state-run media hinted that all of this happened. A Thursday commentary in Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the country’s official party, contained a stern warning for people it called “two-faced” officials.

“It is an anti-party, anti-revolutionary act to pretend to be revering the leader in front of him when you actually dream of something else,” it reads. “There are traitors and turncoats who only memorize words of loyalty toward the Leader and even change according to the trend of the time.” Interestingly, that same newspaper accused Kim Jong Un’s uncle of committing “anti-party, anti-revolutionary acts” after his execution in December 2013.

Kim Hyok Chol, in the center with the blue tie, seen leaving the Government Guest House of Vietnam on February 21, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Kim Hyok Chol, in the center with the blue tie, seen leaving the Government Guest House of Vietnam on February 21, 2019, in Hanoi.
Linh Pham/Getty Images

Put together, it suggests a purge may have occurred because Kim was displeased he left Vietnam without a nuclear deal. The summit in Hanoi ended early after both sides made demands the other side couldn’t accept: North Korea wanted nearly all sanctions removed for the closure of important nuclear sites, while the US wanted Pyongyang to completely dismantle its nuclear arsenal before lifting any financial penalties.

Failure of any kind typically isn’t forgiven by the Kim regime, and that’s surely and especially true if it involves Kim’s most important foreign policy initiative. So the Chosun Ilbo’s story makes sense because of how closely it adheres to Kim’s past behavior, experts say. Still, analysts warn that everyone should approach the execution news with caution — mainly because we’ve been burned before.

Be skeptical of the Chosun Ilbo story for now

Three main reasons stand out for why the South Korean daily’s story could be true, but actually may not be.

First, the entire report was based on one unnamed person who claimed to have knowledge of the situation. That’s troublesome: Typical journalistic standards require that multiple sources confirm a story, particularly one as gruesome and important as this. Other reporters have already noted conflicting information, like how one source said Kim Hyok Chol had recently been seen in Pyongyang’s foreign ministry.

So to be crystal clear: The Chosun Ilbo’s report is entirely reliant on what one anonymous person said — that’s it. It behooves us all to wait to see if other sources or outlets confirm Kim Hyok Chol’s untimely demise.

That’s not to say the report came out of nowhere. There were already stories earlier this month indicating that North Korea’s nuclear negotiators may have been killed by the regime.

Asked by ABC News about those reports on May 5, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo smiled as he said, “It does appear that the next time we have serious conversations that my counterpart will be someone else. ... Just as President Trump gets to decide who his negotiators will be, Chairman Kim will get to make his own decisions who he asks to have these conversations.”

President Donald Trump speaks with Kim Yong Chol (on the left), then one of leader Kim Jong Un’s closest aides, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on outside the White House on June 1, 2018 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump speaks with Kim Yong Chol (left), then one of leader Kim Jong Un’s closest aides, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on outside the White House on June 1, 2018.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Second, it’s notoriously hard to confirm anything that happens inside North Korea. The information that comes out of the country is tightly controlled by the regime, and few (if any) reporters have access to the highest corridors of power in Pyongyang. Much of what anonymously seeps out of North Korea is pure rumor, and the deaths of these officials could be conjecture as well.

Which leads into the final point: South Korean media doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to reporting on high-level deaths in North Korea. Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, tweeted some examples on Thursday.

In 2014, North Korea’s then-No. 2 official, who’d reportedly been purged and killed, appeared on state-run television alongside Kim multiple times afterward. That same year, reports that Kim had his ex-girlfriend killed by firing squad proved false after she also turned up on television alive and well. And in 2018, a top military official who many thought had been sent to a reeducation program appeared — you guessed it — on TV, clapping next to other regime leaders during a celebration for Kim’s late father.

It’s conceivable, then, that we might see Kim Hyok Chol and the other officials again soon, their images clearly visible on a contemporary North Korean television program to prove they’re still walking about.

That said, South Korean media can be trustworthy and vital to readers. The country’s former president Park Geun-hye received a 24-year prison sentence in 2018 for bribery, abuse of power, and other crimes partly because of the great work of South Korea’s reporters.

But in this specific case, it’s worth holding tight until we have more credible information. “When it comes to South Korean news reports about North Korean court politics, caveat lector,” tweeted Pollack using a Latin phrase for “let the reader beware.”

Trump is playing a deadly serious game

Amid all the pomp and drama surrounding Trump and Kim’s months-long nuclear negotiations, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many people’s lives literally hang in the balance. Not just those millions of people threatened by North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile arsenal but also the people working directly for Kim.

Think of it this way: If Pompeo or National Security Adviser John Bolton fail at their jobs, at worst, Trump may fire them. But if Kim’s advisers fail to do what he wants, they could very well lose their lives.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their second summit meeting on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam. 
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their second summit meeting on February 28, 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images

That reality could make future nuclear negotiations, which have stalled since Vietnam, even harder.

“Anyone who negotiates with the US is obligated now more than ever to take an intransigent hard line,” Van Jackson, a North Korea expert at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, told me. “Working-level negotiators are going to be very wary about bringing any hypothetical US concession to Kim Jong Un for fear of getting their heads chopped off.”

That’s why Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the diplomatic dance with Kim is so troubling. Twice he’s gone into summits with little preparation, hoping his charm and dealmaking prowess would compel Kim to give up weapons North Korea has spent decades building and sees as crucial to the regime’s survival. Trump’s plan was always a recipe for disaster, and it played a large part in the Hanoi failure.

And that failure may have had very serious consequences this time: the possible untimely deaths of five people at the hands of an autocrat with whom Trump says he fell in love. And while the blame for the killings would fall squarely at Kim’s feet, Trump can’t say he did all he could to avoid such an outcome.

This is no longer the world of New York real estate — these are actual life-and-death stakes.