North Korean former No. 2 resurfaces after purge

 Kim Jong Un presides over a Korean People's Army operation meeting in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un presides over a Korean People's Army operation meeting in Pyongyang.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's one-time right-hand man was on Wednesday (Dec 30) confirmed to have made a comeback to Pyongyang's inner circle, after reportedly being purged and sent to a farm for "re-education".

Analysts said the reversal of fortune for Choe Ryong Hae is the latest in a series, and indicate the young leader may be taking a softer line after earning a reputation for ruthlessness with the elimination of high-ranking officials including his uncle.

"The series of reinstatements of key officials this year suggests Kim Jong Un might be backtracking on his reign of terror", said Cheong Seong Chang, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul.

Choe's reinstatement was revealed when North Korea announced a state funeral committee for Kim Yang Gon, a senior official who died in a traffic accident on Tuesday (Dec 29).

His name was listed sixth, after Kim's and four other senior party officials.

Choe, a vice marshal who was once considered No. 2 in the Stalinist state next to Kim himself, was purged last month and sent to a farm for "re-education", according to South Korea's spy agency.

The agency said he was likely punished over a serious water leak at a power station. North Korean soldiers are widely mobilised in construction projects in the heavily militarised state.

Another official known to have been dismissed but also included on the funeral committee list was Won Dong Yon, deputy director of a department chaired by Kim Yang Gon.

Cheong said Jong Un might have brought Won back to replace Kim Yang Gon who oversaw ties with South Korea and who state media described as the leader's "most trustworthy" aide.

Earlier this year, two other cadres - former top construction official Ma Won Chun and one-time party financial official Han Kwang-Sang - were also reinstated following short-lived purges.

Kim earned a reputation for brutality after unconfirmed reports emerged of a deadly clearing of the decks after he came to power in 2011, replacing his father Kim Jong Il.

Defence minister Hyon Yong Chol was said to have been executed in April by anti-aircraft fire for dozing off during formal military rallies.

And Kim had his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek executed in December 2012 on charges of treason and corruption, allowing Choe to emerge as his right-hand man.

Rumours of political purges and even executions regularly emerge from the isolated North, but sometimes these are rebutted when the official in question resurfaces in state media.