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(LEAD) N. Korea's pointman on inter-Korean relations executed: sources

All Headlines 22:07 May 18, 2009

(ATTN: ADDS background, expert's quote)

SEOUL, May 18 (Yonhap) -- North Korea executed its pointman on South Korea last year, holding him responsible for wrong predictions about Seoul's new conservative government that has ditched a decade of engagement policy toward Pyongyang, sources said Monday.

Choe Sung-chol, who as vice chairman of the North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee had pushed for bold reconciliation with Seoul's previous liberal governments, disappeared from public sight early last year amid reports that he was fired.

Rumors spread in January that he was forced to work at a chicken farm, but a number of sources privy to North Korean internal affairs told Yonhap News Agency that Choe was executed last year to shoulder the blame for inter-Korean relations, which changed drastically with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's inauguration.

The sources said the North Korean authorities ostensibly accused Choe of corruption, but their real intention was to punish the dovish official for the questionable outcome of the past decade of reconciliation with the South.

"Despite hardliners' objections, Mr. Choe had strongly pushed for progress in relations with the South under Seoul's Roh Moo-hyun government," the source said. "But inter-Korean relations deteriorated after the government change in the South, and he was blamed for the 'misjudgments' and all other fallout," the source said.

Choe, also a deputy director of the Workers' Party inter-Korean department, came into the public spotlight in 2007, when he escorted Roh throughout his visit to Pyongyang for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. He is also known to have played a key role in arranging the summit and briefed Kim personally.

Another source said the North Korean government held him accountable for the unwanted impact from North Korea's dependence on the capitalist South that has grown with economic exchanges. The Lee administration cut off unconditional rice and fertilizer aid to the North and has taken a tougher stance on its nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang punished Choe for planting fantasies about South Korea in North Korean society, the source said.

Seoul's Unification Ministry earlier acknowledged Choe's dismissal, but could not confirm his whereabouts or why he was sacked.

The sources said the North Korean government launched an investigation into officials handling South Korean economic aid in 2007. What began as a corruption probe, however, turned into a politically motivated purge as inter-Korean relations slid into a stalemate, they said.

One of the sources said, "Mr. Choe was not the kind of person whose behavior could have led to execution on corruption charges."

"Even if he did engage in corruption, that wouldn't have been a problem when relations were good. But when inter-Korean policy has to be changed at a time of worsening relations, a moderate official like Mr. Choe has no ground to stand on," the source said.

Choe, a self-made man born into a working-class family in 1956, rapidly climbed the career ladder as inter-Korean relations blossomed. He represented the North Korean delegation to the Red Cross talks with the Kim Dae-jung administration and further expanded his role as the chief inter-Korean policymaker during the Roh era.

Analysts believe Choe's execution, if true, portends a further stalemate in inter-Korean relations, with moderates losing ground to hard-liners in the face of Seoul's tough policy. In its latest unilateral decision, North Korea last week scrapped wage and land contracts governing an industrial complex jointly run with South Korea.

"The North tried to set new terms with the new government, but things didn't turn out as expected," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, noting that it took several months for North Korea to gauge Lee's policy before it started to unleash criticism in April last year.

As relations deteriorated, several other officials who formerly held inter-Korean affairs posts, including Kwon Ho-ung, who led the North Korean delegation to minister-level talks as a senior Cabinet minister, have disappeared.

"When relations go awry, they are held accountable for being wrong. Chairman Kim Jong-il, who is the highest decision-maker, cannot be blamed, and they are made into scapegoats to shoulder all the blame," Koh said.


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