SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has executed more than 70 members of the impoverished nation's wealthy elite since coming to power in 2011, for misdemeanors ranging from running illicit businesses to watching South Korean TV dramas, a new report showed.
The report released by the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul, a think tank run by a North Korean defector, provides the names of 76 people including diplomats, officials in the governing Workers' Party of Korea, Cabinet members and musicians. Three of them committed suicide ahead of their executions.
The report, obtained by the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday, is based on the testimony of 20 high-ranking defectors. The center said that Kim is seeking to consolidate his hold on the regime through a reign of terror.
"The executions show that the Kim Jong Un regime is struggling to handle the country's power elite," said a researcher at the center, who asked not to be named. "As they have access to outside information, the North Korean elite try to claim their own rights and make money through capitalistic businesses."
The information came to light just a week before Kim meets U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea.
Washington's main demand is that Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons, and its inter-continental ballistic missiles that can target the U.S. mainland. North Korea is likely to seek a formal end to the Korean War, a retrenchment of U.S. and South Korean military force, economic assistance and sanctions relief.
Securing economic gifts from Trump will help Kim keep his country's elite in check, experts said.
"Kim is likely anxious to demonstrate to hard-liners in North Korea that his engagement with the U.S. is bearing fruit and supporting his plans to keep the country safe and develop its economy," said Scott Seaman, a director at Eurasia Group.
The Kim dynasty has long used purges of the nation's elite to keep its grip on power.
In 2015, Kim ordered Workers' Party members to carry out a campaign against abuses of power and corruption. Kim he ordered the death of his uncle and one-time deputy Jang Song-thaek in 2013, and has had senior figures including an army general killed. His defense minister was executed for allegedly napping at a rally in 2015.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said last year that North Korea's human rights record remains poor.
He said his commission had found "crimes against humanity that entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and sexual violence."
In an column for Bloomberg on Thursday, Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that human rights were key to a deal at the Hanoi summit.
"Trump will never realize his dream of seeing North Korea trade its missile launch pads for beachfront condominiums and casinos unless he addresses the regime's massive human-rights abuses," said for the former Asia director at the National Security Council. "Since Trump met Kim in Singapore last summer, he's gone quiet on human rights."
In another sign of Kim's distrust of the elite, Kim has sidelined veteran diplomats from talks ahead of the Feb. 27-28 summit. Kim Hyok Chol, a high-ranking official at the State Affairs Commission, replaced Choe Sun Hui, vice foreign minister, as the counterpart to Steve Biegun, the U.S.'s special representative for North Korea.
North Korea Strategy Center said that the change of negotiators also reflects that Kim has negative sentiments toward career diplomats who have lived in rich capitalist countries.