A senior North Korean official who had reportedly been sentenced to hard labor over the failed nuclear summit with the Trump administration was pictured in state media enjoying a concert near leader Kim Jong-un this weekend, according to the AP.
Last week, the international media reported that Kim Yong-chol, the North Korean leader’s right-hand man was sentenced to hard labor and ideological re-education at a camp near the Chinese border, as part of a purge of officials who were involved in the failed summit between the U.S. and North Korea. Kim Yong-chol had helped arrange the Hanoi summit.
According to reports, Kim Jong-un supposedly executed Kim Hyok-chol, its nuclear envoy to the United States, along with four other foreign ministry officials back in March. The stories are based on a report in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, which cited a single anonymous source.
Photos published Monday show Kim Yong-chol on Sunday sitting five seats away from Kim Jong-un in a row with other top officials during a musical performance by the wives of Korean People’s Army officers.
A report by Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency named Kim Yong Chol among the attendees of the event, which it said “impressively represented the ideological and mental features of KPA officers’ wives, who make every moment of their life honorable with ardent yearning for the leader.”
Kim Yong Chol has been North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator and the counterpart of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo since Kim Jong Un entered nuclear talks with the U.S. early last year. He traveled to Washington and met President Donald Trump twice before Kim’s two summits with Trump.
Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been at a standstill since February, when the second summit between Trump and Kim broke down over what the United States described as excessive North Korean demands for sanctions relief in exchange for only a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Kim Hyok-chol and the other officials who were reportedly executed have been out of the public eye since the summit in February, but their deaths have not yet been verified.
The report came at a delicate time for diplomacy as North Korea in past weeks has tested short-range missiles and issued belligerent rhetoric toward American and South Korean officials. Kim Jong Un declared in April that the Trump administration has until the end of the year to come up with mutually acceptable terms for a deal to salvage the nuclear negotiations.
Experts say the North is using measured brinkmanship aimed at increasing pressure on Washington without actually causing the negotiations to collapse.
North Korea has previously executed scapegoats to atone for high-profile political flops.
Intelligence services in South Korea and in the U.S. are trying to find out what happened to Kim Hyok-chol and the others.
When asked about reports of the purge last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was “doing our best to check it out.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters in Washington, “I am not going to comment on intelligence one way or another.”
“I can tell you we are monitoring the situation and continuing to stay focused on our ultimate goal, which is denuclearization,” she said last week.
Both the South Korean media and the government in Seoul have reported on purges in the past — only for the “executed” officials to turn up a few weeks later looking alive and well next to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the BBC noted last week, pointing out that it would be wise to treat the reports of a purge cautiously.
An analyst at a leading think tank in South Korea told the AP that Kim Yong-chol is “rumored to have health problems and wouldn’t have appeared in public this quickly if he was undergoing political re-education.”
Cheong Seong-Chang, of the Sejong Institute, said that it didn’t make sense for Kim Jong-un to execute Kim Hyok-chol because Kim Yong-chol is the more senior official, and as such, would be seen as more responsible for the failed summit.
In recent years there have been several stories of executions that turned out to be fake news, including the alleged death of singer Hyon Song-wol and former military chief Ri Yong-gil.
In 2013, Chosun Ilbo reported that Hyon Song-wol had been shot in a “hail of machine gun fire while members of her orchestra looked on.”
Last year, Hyon Song-wol swept into Seoul leading a visiting North Korean delegation ahead of the Winter Olympics looking rather glamorous in a fur coat and very much alive. She is now one of the most powerful women in North Korea.
South Korean intelligence officials said in 2016 that the former military chief Ri Yong-gil had been executed for corruption. He appeared in state media a few months later – having been given a promotion.
Kim Hyok-chol may appear alongside Kim Jong-un at a later date, as well. Or not. Unless Pyongyang decides to make an announcement, his fate could remain a mystery.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the leader of N. Korea as Kim Jong-Il.