SEOUL • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's one-time right-hand man was yesterday confirmed to have made a comeback to Pyongyang's inner circle, after reportedly being purged and sent to a farm for "re-education".
Mr Choe Ryong Hae's return to power came amid reports yesterday that a top aide to Mr Kim who oversaw relations with the South has died in a traffic accident, a loss seen as a setback for reconciliation efforts.
Analysts said the reversal of fortunes for Mr Choe is the latest in a series of reinstatements, and indicates 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 Mr Cheong Seong Chang, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul.
Mr Choe's reinstatement was revealed when North Korea announced a state funeral committee for Mr Kim Yang Gon. The senior official "died in a traffic accident at 6.15am Tuesday at age 73", the Korean Central News Agency said without giving further details.
Mr Choe's name was sixth on the committee's list, after that of Mr Kim Jong Un and four other senior party officials.
Mr Choe, a vice-marshal who was once considered No. 2 to Mr Kim Jong Un, 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 Mr Won Dong Yon, deputy director of a department chaired by Mr Kim Yang Gon.
Mr Cheong said Mr Kim Jong Un might have brought Mr Won back to replace Mr Kim Yang Gon, who state media described as the leader's "most trustworthy" aide.
One South Korean analyst said that there was no evidence of foul play in the death, but it could not be ruled out. "Kim Yang Gon was becoming too close to the leader, which must have incurred great jealousy among political rivals," Professor Yang Moo Jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies said.
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.
Mr Kim Jong Un 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 Mr Kim had his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek executed in December 2012 on charges of treason and corruption, allowing Mr Choe to emerge as his right-hand man.