- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2019

BERLIN — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would neither confirm nor deny reports Friday that the North Korean government had executed one of its top nuclear negotiators as punishment for the failed February summit with President Trump in Vietnam.

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had executed Kim Hyok-chol — the negotiating counterpart of U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun — at an airport in North Korea in March.

The publication, which cited an unnamed source for the reporting, also claimed that the North Korean government has sent Mr. Kim’s right-hand man Kim Yong-chol to a labor and reeducation camp in the wake of the Trump summit that was held in Hanoi, Vietnam.

While analysts say that if the reporting is accurate it could have a devastating impact on the future of talks between Washington and Pyongyang, rumors have swirled for months about the fate of the two North Korean officials.

Mr. Pompeo was circumspect when asked about the report during a press conference after meeting in Berlin Friday with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

“We’ve seen the reporting to which you are referring. We’re doing our best to check it out,” the secretary of state said when asked about the matter by a reporter.

SEE ALSO: Kim Jong-un’s move to replace hardline spy chief creates fresh uncertainty in nuke talks

“I don’t have anything else to add to that today,” Mr. Pompeo said.

A high level northeast Asian diplomatic source told The Washington Times that the Chosun Ilbo report was being viewed with skepticism in the region.

“It seems quiet exaggerated,” the source said on condition of anonymity, adding that something appears to have happened to Kim Hyok-chol and Kim Yong-chol because they have not appeared in public in recent months in North Korea.

“But it is not clear yet what punishment they got,” the source said.

Mr. Pompeo’s comments, meanwhile, came after talks with German officials that the secretary of state characterized as productive on Friday, despite diplomatic friction between Washington and Berlin on a range of fronts.

Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Maas said they had discussed Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela during their meeting. Mr. Pompeo, who also later met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, praised the strong U.S.-Germany alliance.

Ahead of both meetings, Mr. Pompeo publicly apologized for abruptly postponing a previously planned visit to Berlin in early May. At the time, he changed his schedule midway through a trip to Europe to make a stop in Iraq amid rising tensions between the United States and Iran.

The topic of Iran was one of disagreement between Mr. Pompeo and German leaders Friday.

Mr. Maas told reporters that Germany remains determined to continue trying to hold together the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord that President Trump pulled out the United States out of last year as part of a renewed U.S. push to isolate Iran and pressure it toward negotiating a new deal that addresses Iranian missile provocations and support for militant proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.

While German officials say they broadly agree that such Iranian activities should be contained, Mr. Maas suggested the Merkel government is firm in its belief that the Trump administration erred in pulling out of the Obama-era nuclear deal.

“The nuclear agreement increases international security,” the German Foreign Minister said after meeting with Mr. Pompeo on Friday.

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