Why We Believed North Korea Executed Its Nuclear Negotiators

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44287824
Kim Jong-un (centre) and Kim Yong-chol (back) at the April 2018 Inter-Korean Summit. Source: BBC News

Just when we thought we had moved past the failed US-North Korea nuclear summit in Hanoi back in February, it shuffled back into the news again. On May 31st, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that the North Korean negotiators for the summit, including special envoy to the US Kim Hyok-chol, had been executed in March for their failure. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man, Korean Worker’s Party vice-chairman Kim Yong-chol, was also reported as having been imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour and re-education. The article, which cited only a single anonymous source (which any journalism school will tell you is hardly due diligence for reporting), stated that these purges were meant to help stamp down internal unrest, since the failed summit undermined the infallibility of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government. Given the apparent paucity of information, some experts expressed doubts about the veracity of the story, while the US government stated that it would look into the reports.

At least part of the execution story was apparently discredited on June 2, when the Korean Central News Agency (the North Korean state news agency) included Kim Yong-chol on a list of officials who accompanied Kim Jong-un to an art performance. While it seems like Kim avoided having to do hard labour, it does seem like he’s suffered a decline in importance, as his name was noted as only being 10th among the 12 officials listed. Additionally, he also didn’t accompany Kim Jong-un on a visit to Russia in April, and was noted as having been removed as head of the United Front Department (which is responsible for relations with South Korea and espionage) around the same time.

So why was this story so readily believed when there was so little reliable evidence to support it? There are a few reasons as to why this is was the case:

  • North Korea is famously opaque.

North Korea is well-known as one of the least transparent countries in the world. The government has engaged in stringent information control measures for decades, with all domestic media outlets getting their information from the KCNA. Internet access and cell phones are also viewed by the government as being potential avenues for outside information, leading to strict controls on their use, including random checks. The few visitors who get access to North Korea are closely monitored by government officials and are almost never allowed to see anything that paints the country in a negative light, which is enforced with mandatory guides assigned by the Foreign Ministry. This extends to foreign reporters, who are only allowed in under strict conditions and can be imprisoned for insulting the regime or even just entering without permission (which happened to two US journalists who entered the country in 2009 without visas).

As a result, very little accurate information about what happens in North Korea actually gets out of the country, leading to considerable speculation about its inner workings. It says something that much of the information we also get about North Korea comes from defectors and from diplomatic contact with other countries, rather than from North Korea itself. Even historical information rarely comes directly from North Korean sources – something I learned for myself when digging around for archival documents and finding that most tend to be reports and cables from Romanian and Hungarian diplomats. Given all this, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a story with only a single source was able to get so much traction despite not being verified; having a paucity of reliable sources on North Korea is the usual situation, rather than being exceptional.

  • This wouldn’t have been the first time North Korean officials had been executed.

One of the main reasons the story seemed so plausible is that it would be far from the first time that Kim Jong-un had people executed. One of the most notable examples is how he had his uncle Jong Sang-Thaek, the vice-chairman of the National Defence Committee and second-most powerful government official, executed in December 2013. The lack of transparency makes the specific reasoning for the execution unclear, but given his prominent position it’s likely that he was perceived as a threat to Kim Jong-un’s power and needed to be removed. Other officials have been executed or imprisoned for a variety of reasons over the years, with diplomats being seen as especially prone to the latter due to the need for re-education to make sure they aren’t being unduly influenced by foreign ideologies. The executions have also reportedly been … somewhat over the top, including an Army vice-minister being killed with a mortar bombardment in 2012 for drinking during the mourning period for Kim Jong-il and security officials being executed with anti-aircraft guns in 2017 for apparently making false reports. (Stories that Jong Sang-Thaek was killed with a pack of wild dogs have been proven to be untrue, but the fact that they were considered plausible in the first place speaks volumes about how North Korea is perceived).

The most well-known instance of Kim Jong-un having someone killed is https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44287824 in February 2017. On top of his being a close relative of Kim Jong-un, he was targeted in a crowded public area with VX nerve agent, possibly one of the deadliest chemical weapons in the world. Given how brazen this was, especially since VX can kill with as little as 10 mg and is meant to affect large areas as a vapor, it becomes a lot easier to believe that Kim Jong-un would have diplomats shot or imprisoned for embarrassing him internationally.

  • People keep thinking of Kim Jong-un as “crazy” or “irrational.”

This topic almost inevitably comes up whenever North Korea is discussed. Admittedly, given the executions described above and the cult of personality that’s formed around North Korean leaders, it’s somewhat understandable that people think of Kim Jong-un as being crazy and unpredictable. However, it seems far more likely that Kim Jong-un, like his grandfather and father, is a rational actor attempting to ensure the continued survival of his government, since it almost certainly ties in with his own survival. While it’s easy to think of North Korea as an absolute dictatorship where everyone follows the whims of the ruling Kims without question, the reality is that the government is pretty reliant on the support of a number of elites, particularly high-ranking military officers (who solidified their positions by supporting Kim Jong-il’s succession in the 1990s in exchange for the military being elevated above the KWP and bureaucracy). If it looked like something was threatening their positions and benefits – say, the infallible Supreme Leader being embarrassed on the international stage – that support base becomes a lot shakier. Brutally punishing people for their failures is a useful way for Kim Jong-un to assert his supremacy in the North Korean political system – just one that seems repulsive to the rest of us who don’t worry about being killed in a coup or revolution.

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