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Nuclear negotiator still alive, says NIS chief

July 18,2019
A North Korean nuclear negotiator rumored to have been executed for the failure of the second summit with the United States is still alive, said South Korea’s intelligence agency on Tuesday.

According to Rep. Kim Min-ki of the ruling Democratic Party, National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief Suh Hoon told members of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that former North Korean Ambassador to Spain Kim Hyok-chol appears to still be alive based on a “comprehensive assessment.”

In late May, South Korean conservative daily Chosun Ilbo reported that Kim Hyok-chol, who led the North’s delegation in negotiations with the United States ahead of the summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, had been shot alongside two of his subordinates for the collapse of the meeting.

Suh’s remarks on Tuesday stand as the first response from the NIS on those rumors since the report came out, according to Rep. Kim Min-ki.

The NIS chief also gave his assessment on the recent snap summit held between U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in at the border village in Panmunjom late last month, a meeting that reignited dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington after months of prolonged stalemate.

As suggested by media reports, Suh said the North’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui led the country’s arrangements in making the talks happen, while the United Front Department (UFD), the agency in charge of diplomacy and espionage with South Korea, assumed a supportive role.

It is believed that the Foreign Ministry has leapfrogged the UFD as the leading organ in North Korea in its negotiations with the United States, largely due to the UFD and its former director Kim Yong-chol’s failure to get an agreement from Trump in Hanoi.

Kim Yong-chol was speculated to have been removed from his post as UFD chief as a result of that summit, with his replacement being virtually unknown in South Korea.

Suh also touched on the growing problems with the North’s food situation, saying a drought had set in after rainfall decreased by 30 percent in recent months compared to last year.

Food insecurity has been rising as a result of these weather patterns, Suh said, adding the North will likely “deplete its food stocks by late August.”

The intelligence director’s remarks align with a recent string of reports coming from the United Nations (UN) and other agencies that suggested Pyongyang was in need of food aid to feed its citizens amid a serious food shortage.

A Switzerland-based crop monitoring organization, Geoglam, said in a report that this year’s drought was expected to reduce harvests of wheat and barley in the country by 20 percent.

This result could exacerbate the already alarming prevalence of undernourishment affecting over half of the North’s population, as shown in a UN report from Monday.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]