SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has purged a former foreign minister who played an instrumental role in his summits with former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018-19, South Korean lawmakers said on Thursday, citing intelligence officials.
Ri Yong Ho has remained out of the public eye since denuclerisation talks with Washington stalled following a failed summit in early 2019 in Vietnam between Kim and Trump, but Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Wednesday that he was executed last year, citing unnamed sources.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers that Ri has been purged but it was unclear whether he was executed, said Yoo Sang-bum, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee.
“They confirmed Ri’s purge but not his execution,” Yoo told reporters after a briefing by the spy agency.
Yoo said the agency did not explain why Ri was purged, and the lawmakers could not confirm the Yomiuri report that also said a few other diplomats who had worked at the North Korean Embassy in Britain were also executed.
Ri was last mentioned in North Korean state media in April 2020, when he was removed from the State Affairs Commission, a top decision-making body chaired by Kim. He was sacked from the top diplomat job months earlier.
A soft-spoken, career diplomat with years of experience in nuclear negotiations, Ri accompanied Kim to both Singapore and Hanoi for summits with Trump in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Ri held a news conference shortly after the Hanoi summit fell apart, saying Kim had made “realistic proposals” but Trump demanded more concessions.
There have been media reports about the execution of several Pyongyang officials involved in the failed summit, but some eventually reappeared in state media after a while.
Yoo also said the spy agency attributed the recent sacking of Pak Jong Chon, once the second most powerful military official after Kim, to inadequate readiness during training and a lack of leadership.
“Kim has replaced the military leadership altogether, and that’s ultimately aimed at tightening his grip over the military,” Yoo said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)
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