Kim Jong Un's cryptic personnel changes puzzle North Korea watchers

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in the garden of the Metropole hotel during the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb 28, 2019.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in the garden of the Metropole hotel during the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb 28, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - A swirl of mysterious personnel changes in Pyongyang have fuelled speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could be changing negotiating tack after United States President Donald Trump walked away from their nuclear talks in March.

The North Korean leader's entourage has got a makeover in a series of recent public events including parliamentary reshuffles and Mr Kim's first foreign trip since the Hanoi summit - a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok.

While one diplomat who participated in the US talks got a promotion, others such as Mr Kim's sister, his chief negotiator and the man he sent to broker both his meetings with Mr Trump have faded from view.

The moves could indicate that Mr Kim is purging ranks - not uncommon in the one-party dictatorship - or they could point to developments unknown to outside observers.

Either way, there is no indication that Mr Kim is any more willing to agree to give up his nuclear weapons programme for sanctions relief as the US has demanded.

Here's what has become of Mr Kim's negotiating team since the Hanoi summit.

KIM YONG CHOL, STATE AFFAIRS COMMISSION

Shrewd and acerbic, the former general and spy chief is reviled in Seoul as the suspected mastermind of the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors in 2010. To Washington, he's been a key emissary who helped arrange and participate in both summits between Mr Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un.

 
 

Last month, Mr Kim Yong Chol was unexpectedly replaced as head of the ruling party's United Front Department by a lesser-known official, and was absent from Mr Kim Jong Un's side during meetings with Mr Putin last month in Russia.

Experts disagree over whether the change was a demotion. He was re-appointed to the 14-member State Affairs Commission led by Mr Kim Jong Un and is believed to have retained his various ruling party positions.

One South Korean government official, who asked not to be identified, said Mr Kim Yong Chol's status appears unchanged for now.

"Whether he will still play a role remains to be seen," said Mr Lee Hye-hoon, an opposition lawmaker who heads the South Korean National Assembly's intelligence committee and has been briefed by spy agency officials.

"I didn't hear a clear answer as to whether Kim Yong Chol was being reprimanded for the Hanoi summit failure, but I got the impression that he was."

RI YONG HO, FOREIGN MINISTER

The veteran diplomat who once denounced Mr Trump at the United Nations as a "mentally deranged person, full of megalomania" has maintained a central foreign policy role since Hanoi. In addition to being re-appointed to the State Affairs Commission last month, he's also appeared repeatedly by Mr Kim Jong Un side in recent diplomatic events, including the meetings with Mr Putin in Vladivostok.

The absence of other power players such as Mr Kim Yong Chol from such events could potentially increase both Mr Ri's and the foreign ministry's influence.

But his presence suggests more continuity than change in North Korea's approach towards Washington, since Mr Ri has been foreign minister since 2016 and has helped manage relations with the US and other foreign countries as a diplomat for more than two decades.

CHOE SON HUI, FIRST VICE-FOREIGN MINISTER

Among the most surprising developments has been the ascent of Ms Choe. The blunt-spoken diplomat was once best known to foreign negotiators as a translator who took liberties with her boss's words during six-party talks, according to Mr Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear envoy.

Since participating the Hanoi talks, Ms Choe has been promoted to the State Affairs Commission alongside Mr Ri and received the title of first vice-foreign minister. She has enjoyed other nods of trust from Mr Kim Jong Un, sharing his table with Mr Putin at their Vladivostok banquet and briefing the foreign media, where she conveyed what she said were the supreme leader's personal views.

She's recently been quoted criticising top US officials in state media reports, calling National Security Adviser John Bolton "dim-sighted". The South Korean official said the government believed Ms Choe would play a big role going forward.

"Kim Jong Un's confidence in Choe is very special," said Mr Kim In-tae, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank under the National Intelligence Agency. "Choe's role will inevitably increase."

KIM YO JONG, SISTER

Part royal representative, part personal assistant, Ms Kim has emerged as one of her older brother's closest aides in recent months. While she became the first member of the ruling family to visit Seoul and accompanied Mr Kim Jong Un in his summits with Mr Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, she has also performed mundane tasks, such as helping the leader extinguish a cigarette during a train stop in China.

That proximity to power has made Ms Kim's disappearance in recent weeks all the more intriguing. Besides being left off a list of newly elected Political Bureau alternate members last month, she was absent from the Putin meetings.

In fact, she hasn't appeared in any state media since the early April reshuffle, after participating in nine public events earlier in the year, according to a tally by the North Korea news site NKPro.

It is too soon to know whether she has been demoted, said Ms Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior Seoul-based senior analyst with NKPro. "It appears highly unusual that she was not spotted anywhere at anytime during Kim Jong Un's Russia visit," Ms Lee said.

KIM HYOK CHOL, CHIEF NEGOTIATOR

A career diplomat known for his expertise in nuclear deterrence against the US, Mr Kim Hyok Chol's appointment as counterpart to the Trump administration's chief envoy Stephen Biegun earlier this year surprised North Korea watchers.

One South Korean TV outlet drew a circle around him in a video from a White House meeting between Mr Trump and North Korean officials, asking who he was.

In the aftermath of the Hanoi talks, Mr Kim Hyok Chol has plunged back into obscurity, receiving no mention in state media reports. That could reflect his relatively low rank in Pyongyong's power structure - or suggest a purge.

Mr Lee Hye-hoon, the South Korean lawmaker, said intelligence officials wouldn't confirm whether Mr Kim Hyok Chol had been punished.

Mr Chun, the former South Korean negotiator, said: "As far as I know, Kim Hyok Chol did nothing wrong in Hanoi and there is no reason he should be reprimanded."