U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday disputed a news report that North Korea has executed its nuclear negotiators over the collapse of February's summit between the two countries.
South Korea's conservative Chosun Ilbo reported last week that North Korea had executed its special representative for the U.S., Kim Hyok-chol, along with four officials of the ministry of foreign affairs to hold them accountable for the no-deal summit in Vietnam between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
"I don't know if those reports are correct because one of the gentlemen we deal with is ... is somebody that we know well," Trump told reporters at Shannon Airport in Ireland. "He's a strong man, he's a strong person and they like to blame Kim Jong-un immediately but they said he was killed and he wasn't."
Trump did not name the man, but it appeared he was referring to Kim's close aide, Kim Yong-chol, who served as the chief negotiator in nuclear talks with the U.S
The Chosun Ilbo said he was sent to a remote province for forced labor, not executed. Several days later North Korean state media published a photo of Kim Yong-chol watching an art troupe's performance in Pyongyang with the leader.
"He was at the theater the other night," Trump said. "So he wasn't killed. The other four people I know nothing about. But it is, it's an interesting situation."
Meanwhile, Kim Hyok-chol's whereabouts have yet to confirmed. CNN cited several sources familiar with the situation as saying that he is alive and in state custody.
Reports of the purge come as negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have entered into a protracted stalemate following the collapse of the February summit due to differences of the scope of North Korea's denuclearization and sanctions relief from the U.S.
Trump has still expressed hope for a deal and played down the North's short-range missile launches in May as a possible attempt to "get attention."
"I think that they would like to make a deal and we'd like to make a deal with them. We'll see how it goes," he said Wednesday. "It's been going pretty well because there hasn't been testing of anything major and frankly there's been no nuclear testing in a long period of time."
Trump has touted the North's suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests since 2017 as one of his major accomplishments.
He has also boasted about his close personal relationship with the North Korean leader.
"I think that Chairman Kim would like to make a deal and I'd like to make a deal with him," the president said. "I look forward to seeing him in the appropriate time. And again, one of the people they were talking about that was supposedly executed, wasn't executed at all."
The North, meanwhile, has stepped up calls on the U.S. to ease pressure or risk the unraveling of commitments made at their first summit in Singapore last June.
At that meeting, the North Korean leader agreed to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for security guarantees from the U.S.
In a statement issued Tuesday, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson said the U.S. would be "well-advised to change its current method of calculation" and warned of "a limit to our patience." (Yonhap)