Trump casts doubt on North Korea purge

Trump casts doubt on North Korea purge
© KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE on Wednesday cast doubt on reports that North Korea carried out a bloody purge of officials who organized his failed nuclear summit with the country's leader, Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOne year after Singapore, the North Korea problem is bigger than nukes One year after Singapore, the North Korea problem is bigger than nukes China's Xi to visit North Korea: state media MORE.

Trump pointed to news reports that senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, who was reportedly sentenced to hard labor, recently reappeared at a theater performance seated close to Kim Jong Un.

“They like to blame Kim Jong Un immediately,” Trump said. “But they said he was killed, and he wasn’t, he was at the theater the other night. So he wasn’t killed. The other four people I know nothing about.”

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The president incorrectly stated that Kim Yong Chol had reportedly been executed, apparently mistaking him for Kim Hyok Chol, Pyongyang’s special envoy to the U.S., who had been the subject of those reports saying he was executed along with four other North Korean foreign ministry officials involved in the president's Hanoi, Vietnam, summit with Kim.

Kim Hyok Chol is in custody, according to a report by CNN citing several sources familiar with the situation.

“I don't know if the reports are correct,” Trump said when asked about the purge during a meeting in Ireland with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. “One of the people they were talking about that was supposedly executed was not executed at all.”

The president expressed confidence that he could eventually broker a nuclear agreement with Kim Jong Un, despite the growing skepticism of some officials within his own administration and lawmakers following the collapse of the Hanoi summit.

“I think Chairman Kim would like to make a deal and I’d like to make a deal with him,” Trump said.

The president said he believes his efforts to reach a deal are “going pretty well” even though there have been no further high-level talks and North Korea recently tested a short-range missile.

“There hasn’t been testing of anything major and frankly, there has been no nuclear testing for a long period of time,” Trump said, again brushing aside the missile test, which national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonTensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat Tensions with Iran reach new stage over uranium threat The Hill's Morning Report - Is US weighing military action against Iran? MORE and U.S. allies have said violated a United Nations Security Council resolution.

There have been conflicting reports about a North Korean purge, underscoring how little the U.S. and its allies know about the inner workings of the hermit country.

A South Korean newspaper reported late last week that Kim Yong Chol had been banished and sentence to hard labor, just days before his reappearance. That is in addition to CNN's latest report stating that the South Korean newspaper’s report of Kim Hyok Chol's execution by firing squad was untrue.

-Updated 2:20 p.m.