May has been an especially cozy month in the online relationship between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Trump began the month announcing his confidence in the authoritarian figure — “He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me” — reiterating that pledge on May 25. And during his trip to Japan, Trump said he concurred with Kim’s assessment that Joe Biden is a “fool of low IQ.” “I think they agree in their assessment of former vice-president Joe Biden,” said Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, clarifying that the president did indeed defend Chairman Kim’s insult of the former veep.
Many Trump tweets fail the test of time, and it seems that’s already true of his recent messages of goodwill toward Kim. According to Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest daily newspaper, the North Korean government has executed its special envoy to the United States on spying charges. In March, Kim Hyok-chol was reportedly executed by firing squad for being “won over by the American imperialists to betray the supreme leader,” as part of the Kim government’s purge of its nuclear negotiators after talks in Hanoi went nowhere. The paper reported that four North Korean Foreign Ministry officials were also killed, though it did not provide any sourcing details. The New York Times reports that South Korean officials could not confirm the information published by Chosun Ilbo.
Another top official, Kim Yong Chol — the counterpart to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Hanoi summit — was reportedly sentenced to “forced labor and ideological education.” An interpreter, Shin Hye Yong, was reportedly sent to a political prison camp for making a translation mistake.
It’s unclear how the Trump administration may respond to the report that a government in which the president recently pledged his confidence has executed officials for a perceived failure in negotiations. But one claim that the White House cannot make in good faith is that the president didn’t know of Kim Jong-un’s ruthless efforts to consolidate power since becoming Supreme Leader in 2011 — including the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013, killed at the same airfield outside Pyongyang as Kim Hyok-chol.