SEOUL South Korea's Unification Ministry could not confirm on Tuesday a report that North Korea had executed a key official who handled relations with Seoul and was made a scapegoat after ties between the rival states chilled.
Choe Sung-chol, the chief deputy director of the North's Workers' Party apparatus that dealt with the communist state's relations with the South, was executed last year for supposed corruption, Yonhap news agency said.
The Yonhap report, late on Monday, quoted a source familiar with the North, who said the real intention was to punish him for pushing a soft-line with the South.
Choe, born in 1956, was a member of the North's delegation that welcomed former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun after he stepped across the border in 2007 for only the second summit of the leaders of the divided Koreas.
"Choe pressed on with improving ties with the Roh government despite objections by hardliners," Yonhap news agency quoted the source as saying.
Relations between the two Koreas chilled after Roh left office in 2008 and was replaced by Lee Myung-bak, who ended a free flow of unconditional aid to the impoverished North and said handouts would come in return for Pyongyang taking apart its nuclear arms program.
"As ties with the South worsened after the change of government, he became the scapegoat who took all the responsibility for misjudgment in the South's new policy on the North," the source said.
North Korea has threatened war with the South in anger over the tough policies of President Lee, calling him a "traitor to the nation."
News reports said earlier in January that Choe was working at a chicken farm as punishment after being fired last year.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said the report of Choe's execution could not be confirmed.
North Korea has threatened to shut down the last remaining major joint project with the South unless Seoul offers to pay more in rent and wages to the North Koreans who are employed there by small and medium-sized South Korean companies.
(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Valerie Lee)