A top North Korean official reportedly sent to a reeducation camp over a failed summit with President Donald Trump isn’t actually doing hard labor at all. Instead, he’s hanging out with leader Kim Jong Un at swanky concerts — although it does appear he suffered a fall from grace.
In February, Trump and Kim weren’t able to reach a nuclear agreement in Vietnam during their second summit. Kim wanted to walk away from Hanoi with nearly all sanctions removed for the closure of important nuclear sites, while Trump wanted Pyongyang to completely dismantle its nuclear arsenal before lifting any financial penalties.
That wide gulf led to an early breakdown in talks, turning the promise-filled meeting into a disaster for both leaders. But Kim supposedly took the result much, much harder than Trump.
South Korea’s largest daily newspaper, the conservative Chosun Ilbo, reported last week that Kim executed five of his top diplomats in March over the summit and that Kim Yong Chol, one of North Korea’s top officials who visited the White House twice, had been subjected to hard labor and “ideological education.”
But on Monday, it became clear that the Kim Yong Chol part may have been fake news.
According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency, he joined the nation’s leader at a concert performed by the wives of North Korean soldiers. That means Kim Yong Chol remains in the regime’s good graces and clearly isn’t in a labor camp. While it’s possible Pyongyang aims to make its southern neighbor’s newspaper look bad, the story makes sense: Kim Yong Chol’s name has appeared a few times in North Korean outlets since Vietnam, which wouldn’t happen if he were doing hard time.
But the article still signaled a decline in Kim Yong Chol’s status: Of the 12 listed names, his came 10th. That’s a big deal, as one’s prominence in North Korea can be often be gleaned by how high up someone is listed on an official roster. With his name that far down the list, it might indicate Kim Jong Un doesn’t trust his former top aide as much as he once did.
This KCNA dispatch effectively refutes the @Chosun report that high-ranking #DPRK official Kim Yong Chol had been sentenced to hard labor as punishment for the failure of the Hanoi @POTUS-Kim summit. pic.twitter.com/0F0feNjPd3— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) June 2, 2019
If true, it’d be quite the decline. After all, Kim Yong Chol previously led nuclear talks for Pyongyang as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s counterpart and has held high-level military, intelligence, and political position in North Korea. His high status and role in the nuclear talks surely made him an easy scapegoat for the failed Vietnam summit — though losing one’s top place in North Korea’s cabal is far preferable to banishment and torture.
As for North Korea experts, many are relieved their initial skepticism of the report proved correct in this case. “Feeling validated in being so cautious about the Chosun Ilbo report on the North Korean purges,” Mintaro Oba, who worked on North Korea at the State Department, tweeted on Monday morning.
Why the Chosun Ilbo got at least the Kim Yong Chol part of the story wrong
While it’s unclear what happened to the reportedly executed diplomats — including North Korea’s top working-level nuclear negotiator — the “reemergence” of Kim Yong Chol is a very bad look for the South Korean daily. But there were three main reasons for why the story last week was likely untrue.
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. It behooved us all to wait to see if other sources or outlets confirmed the story — and instead, North Korea’s media brushed aside a key part of it.
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 and disappearances of 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 last 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 was always conceivable, then, that Kim Yong Chol or some of the supposedly executed diplomats would pop up again. Luckily for the former, he’s still around to enjoy concerts — at least for now.