A North Korean nuclear negotiator who was reported to have been executed over the failure of the February Hanoi summit between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump is still alive, South Korean intelligence said on Tuesday.
News of Kim Hyok Chol’s death by firing squad as part of a purge of top North Korean officials was first reported in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper in late May and generated headlines around the world.
However, the National Intelligence Service contradicted that account on Tuesday, telling a closed-door meeting of parliamentarians in Seoul that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.
The meeting between Kim Jong-un and Mr Trump in Vietnam earlier this year had been billed as a landmark summit to make progress on nuclear disarmament, but it ended abruptly without a deal after a disagreement over sanctions.
The official in question - Mr Kim, a former ambassador to Spain - and four others who were responsible for laying the groundwork for the summit were alleged to have been charged with espionage on behalf of the US and executed at Mirim airport, near the capital, Pyongyang.
The same report claimed that Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief, who travelled to Washington in the run-up to the summit, had been banished to a labour camp. It said that Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s sister, had also fallen out of favour and been told to keep a low profile.
However, Kim Yong Chol was later spotted at a weekend concert with the North Korean leader and Kim Yo-jong has been seen at ruling party events, casting doubt on the original claims.
The latest assertion by the NIS would not rule out the demotion of senior aides who were deeply involved in discussions with Americans ahead of the Hanoi meeting.
Kim was widely seen to have overplayed his hand in talks with Mr Trump and his inability to secure any form of sanctions relief was a humiliating outcome.
The leading officials in the pre-summit negotiations appear to no longer be acting on the frontline of Kim’s US strategy, giving way for the rise of Choe Son-hui, the vice minister of foreign affairs, and Kim Myong Gil, the former ambassador to Vietnam who is now reportedly the North’s new special envoy.
In June, a report on CNN suggested that Kim Hyok Chol was in state custody and under investigation for his role in the summit, along with the chief translator, Sin Hye Yong.
Earlier news of his alleged execution highlighted the difficulties of verifying facts from the hermit kingdom, and can now be added to a growing list of high-ranking officials who have been believed to be executed, only to come back from the dead.
Another prominent example was Hyon Song-wol, the head of the Samjiyon orchestra, who was alleged to have been shot in a “hail of gunfire” in 2013.
She later reemerged as an envoy to the South Korean Winter Olympics in 2018, and is now known as one of the most influential women in North Korea.