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U.S. Investigating Reports That North Korea Executed Its Top Nuclear Envoy To The U.S.


The State Department is looking into reports that North Korea's leader has killed a top member of his team that negotiated with the U.S. The account of this execution comes from a South Korean newspaper. Back in February, President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un abruptly ended nuclear talks without a deal. Kim was reportedly so upset with the failure that he purged his team. The top nuclear envoy to the U.S. and four others went to a firing squad, and others to a labor camp. The paper cites anonymous sources, and the U.S. and South Korea have not confirmed the account. Sue Mi Terry is a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SUE MI TERRY: Thank you for having me on.

SHAPIRO: These kinds of accounts have been false in the past. So how much weight do you give to this report?

TERRY: Well, we'll have to wait for confirmation, but I am inclined to believe this. Of course, Chosun Ilbo has been wrong, but they have also been right.

SHAPIRO: That's the name of the South Korean newspaper.

TERRY: Yes. It's the major daily paper in South Korea. And they're using a source who is a North Korean who is currently living inside of North Korea. And this particular person has a track record of giving an accurate intelligence of previous purges long before the official announcements. And another Korean paper, Dong-a Ilbo, and their reporter, who is also a North Korean defector who I kind of trust, also come from this report. So all in all, I'm inclined to believe it.

SHAPIRO: This execution reportedly happened back in March. Is this the sort of thing U.S. intelligence agencies might have already known about long before it became public this week?

TERRY: They may have a hint of it, but I doubt that they would have had high-confidence judgment on this because again, intelligence is pretty poor when it comes to North Korea, particularly human intelligence. So I'm not sure if they would have had high-confidence judgment that these men were executed.

SHAPIRO: So in the United States, the failure of these talks in February was seen as a setback but maybe not the end. If the negotiating team has been executed, what does that mean from the North Korean perspective about the future of these negotiations?

TERRY: Well, I am not sure it will have a huge impact on nuclear negotiation because the people who have been purged were actually people who used to do inter-Korea relations, not foreign ministry people. So it was odd to begin with that they were working on negotiation with the United States. So now that things worked out badly for them, it just means you are going back to the foreign ministry people - Choe Son Hui, who has been promoted to vice foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, who is a foreign minister. And these guys are veteran skillful negotiators with extensive experience in negotiating with the United States. So I'm not sure if this means that we're going to see a huge difference in North Korea's negotiating process when it comes to the nuclear program.

SHAPIRO: Just this week, President Trump sided with Kim Jong Un mocking former Vice President Joe Biden. Previously, Trump has said that he and Kim Jong Un fell in love. It is not a surprise that Kim commits flagrant human rights abuses. But do you think something this overt is likely to change Trump's view of the dictator?

TERRY: I doubt it because I am pretty sure that President Trump knows, and the Trump administration certainly knows, what kind of man that they are dealing with. They just have to hold their noses and deal with him because they want to engage him in this negotiation process. But they know what kind of man he is. He executed his uncle. He assassinated his half-brother. He has purged many, many people. So this is not something, I think, is a surprise to the Trump administration or President Trump, to be honest.

SHAPIRO: Sue Mi Terry of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thank you very much.

TERRY: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.