- - Sunday, June 9, 2019


South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported last week that North Korea executed five foreign ministry officials in March because of the collapse of the February 2019 Vietnam Summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In addition, Kim Yong-chol, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s counterpart, reportedly was sentenced to forced labor.

Two press reports indicate the Chosun Ilbo story was at least partially erroneous. Kim Yong-chol was spotted at an event with Kim Jong-un on June 2, according to The New York Times.

CNN reported on June 4 that another North Korean official who reportedly was executed, special envoy to the United States Kim Hyok-chol, is alive but in state custody. This official reportedly is under investigation for his role in the failure of the Vietnam summit and could face “heavy punishment.”

Mr. Kim’s reported backlash against officials who supported him at the Vietnam summit is consistent with what I was told in meetings with South Korean and U.S. military officials during a Washington Times Foundation fact-finding trip to South Korea last month. Our delegation learned that Mr. Kim’s anger and humiliation over the failure of the summit was much worse than was generally known in the United States.

We were told the Kim government probably launched missiles into the Sea of Japan on May 3, 2019, and increased its criticism of senior U.S. officials to express its displeasure over the collapse of the summit. We also were told there would be a staff shake-up of officials who advise Mr. Kim on relations with the United States in response to the summit outcome.

The reports of Kim Jong-un executing diplomats for displeasing him were believable due to his regime’s savage record of killing and jailing government officials and Kim family members. According to a 2016 South Korean intelligence report, Mr. Kim ordered the execution of at least 340 people since he took office in 2011. An estimated 140 were senior officers in the country’s government, military and ruling Korean Worker’s Party. Also executed were Mr. Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek and five of his aides who reportedly were executed in 2013 with anti-aircraft guns. In 2017, the North Korea leader’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, airport when VX nerve agent was smeared on his face.

Kim Jong-un had been led to believe by his advisers that he was on the verge of a huge diplomatic victory with the United States at the Vietnam summit by making a modest offer to dismantle some nuclear sites in exchange for full sanctions relief. The summit collapsed because this offer was unacceptable to Mr. Trump, who has consistently called for complete denuclearization of North Korea.

Although Kim advisers clearly misread Mr. Trump, there also were indications before the summit that low-level U.S. officials — probably at the State Department — led the press to believe Mr. Trump was prepared to be more flexible in reaching an agreement than he actually was.

Obviously, the United States strongly disapproves of the Kim government retaliating and killing its diplomats and will raise concerns about this in future meetings. But Mr. Trump knew the nature of the North Korean government when he decided to pursue bilateral talks with Mr. Kim. The president has taken a pragmatic approach: The United States must talk with this regime to prevent it from having nuclear weapons.

As a result, Mr. Trump was careful not to overreact to recent North Korean missile launches because he is hopeful the Kim government will soon resume negotiations.

A CNN source seemed to suggest this was the right call when he recently said North Korea trotted out Kim Yong-chol “as a signal to Washington that the North Korean leader was not breaking off negotiations over denuclearization.”

While Mr. Trump has made significant progress in lowering tensions with Pyongyang and creating the possibility for a peaceful resolution of the threat from North Korean nuclear and missile programs, he knows that progress made so far is fragile and an agreement is still a long way off. By not condemning North Korea for its recent belligerent acts, Mr. Trump is giving Mr. Kim an opportunity to blow off steam and hopefully resume negotiations with the United States over the summer. Such a gamble is not surprising for a president who prides himself as a dealmaker.

• Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy served as deputy assistant to President Trump and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State and the House Intelligence Committee staff. @fredfleitz

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