Telegraph reports that Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s former ambassador to Britain, may have been ‘put to death’
North Korea’s former ambassador to Britain ‘put to death’
Spies claim that Ri Yong-ho, not seen in public since 2019, removed by Pyongyang despite unverified reports he was killed last year
Nicola Smith, 6 January 2023 • 5:36pm
A former North Korean foreign minister who was posted in London has been ousted by the regime, according to South Korean spies, amid unverified reports he was executed.
Ri Yong-ho, a career diplomat and ambassador to Britain from 2003 to 2007, was also at the heart of Pyongyang’s nuclear diplomacy talks with the United States during a brief period of detente in 2018 and 2019.
He has not been seen in public since Dec 2019.
Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported that Mr Ri had likely been executed in 2022 along with four or five other officials, citing unidentified sources. If true, it would be the most high-profile purge by North Korea in recent years.
The people are all believed to have had links to the North Korean embassy in Britain.
Doubt over South Korean claims
But on Thursday, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told parliamentarians that it neither determined whether Mr Ri had been executed nor did it offer any reasons for his disappearance, according to Youn Kun-young, an MP who was present at the briefing.
The NIS has a spotty record of tracking developments in North Korea, as facts about the reclusive authoritarian regime are often impossible to corroborate.
Experts have cast doubt on the claims, pointing to previous reports about high-profile figures being executed, only for them to re-emerge a short time later.
Previously, there was speculation that Mr Ri may have taken responsibility for the failed talks with Washington over North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
Ri Yong-ho, third right, was part of the North Korean delegation in the 2019 summit between Kim Jong-un, right, and Donald Trump, left Credit: Reuters/Leah Millis
In Feb 2019, negotiations between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the US president at the time, collapsed at a summit Hanoi, Vietnam, when the two sides could not agree on the terms for sanctions relief.
Mr Ri called a news conference in the middle of the night, in which he declared that Washington had wasted an opportunity that “may not come again”.
The senior diplomat, whose family have been trusted by the Kim dynasty for decades, was also foreign minister during diplomatic incidents that embarrassed the regime.
In Aug 2016, Thae Yong-ho, the deputy ambassador to Britain at the time, defected with his family to South Korea on the grounds that he was unhappy with the regime and wanted a better future for his children.
In Feb 2019, activists also occupied the North Korean embassy in Madrid, Spain, stealing computer hard drives and mobile phones before fleeing.
In the early days of his rule, Kim engineered a round of executions, purges and dismissals of senior officials, including the killing of his powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in Dec 2013, as he sought to secure his grip on power.
Kim Jong-un, in his early days in office, orchestrated a round of executions to tighten his grip on power Credit: STR/KCNA via KNS/AFP via Getty Images
South Korean and Western intelligence agencies have also accused the dictator of orchestrating the audacious assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who was killed with a toxic nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Pyongyang has denied this.
A spokesman for Mr Thae, who since defecting has been elected to South Korea’s national assembly, said that the former diplomat was cautious about reports of Mr Ri’s execution, but that if it was true, it would shake the core of the elite class due to his and his father’s close links to the Kim family.
South Korea’s ministry of unification said it is attempting to confirm the report.
Execution mystery remains
Kim Sang-woo, a board member at the Kim Dae-jung Peace Foundation, said it was difficult to immediately confirm the information.
“It is possible, of course, but there have been times in the past when a high-level member of the government has disappeared only to reappear a few months later,” he said.
“It is almost a tradition that someone has to take the blame for a failure somewhere, they are reprimanded and sent to a reform facility until they can emerge effectively redeemed.”
Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University and the author of a number of books on the Kim dynasty, said that his own North Korean and Chinese sources believed Mr Ri had indeed been executed.
He said: “They said the failure of the summit in Hanoi in 2019 had caused suspicion that Mr Ri or his deputy had been providing information to the US in advance, with both men disappearing soon after returning to North Korea.
“If Mr Ri was not able to convince the secret police that he was innocent, then it is very likely that he would have been accused of being a spy and executed. A yb