SEOUL • Mr Kim Yong Chol, former North Korean spymaster and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's counterpart in recent diplomatic contacts between the North and the United States, has resurfaced in public, undermining a South Korean newspaper's report that he had been banished to forced labour in a re-education camp.
South Korea's largest daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported last Friday that Mr Kim had been sent to a re-education camp as part of a political purge of senior North Korean officials held responsible for the breakdown of the second summit between the North's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in February.
But some analysts in South Korea quickly questioned the report, saying it was unlikely for Mr Kim Yong Chol to have been banished because he was still being cited in the North's news media in the weeks after the summit in Hanoi, and had retained his vice-chairmanship in the ruling Workers' Party. Still, Mr Kim's influence looks to have been curtailed because he lost another key post: heading the party's important United Front Department, which manages ties with South Korea, as well as intelligence affairs.
It now appears that the sceptical analysts' assessments are correct.
The North's official KCNA news agency yesterday included Mr Kim's name on a list of officials who accompanied Mr Kim Jong Un to an art performance given by the wives of military officers on Sunday.
But on a roster of 12 officials attending the event, Mr Kim Yong Chol's name was at No. 10. In North Korea's opaque regime, an official's status is commonly gauged by his name's ranking in leadership rosters carried by state-run media.
In another tell-tale sign of his declining influence, Mr Kim Yong Chol was not seen next to Mr Kim Jong Un, as he often used to be, in photos carried by KCNA yesterday.
Number of days Mr Kim Yong Chol's name had not been mentioned in the North Korean state media.
South Korean media scrutinising the photos identified the man seated five seats to the left of Mr Kim Jong Un as Mr Kim Yong Chol.
US officials have been cautious in discussing Mr Kim Yong Chol's fate in public.
But analysts in South Korea generally agree that Mr Kim Yong Chol and his negotiating team, which had driven Mr Kim Jong Un's diplomatic outreach towards Washington since early last year, have been largely sidelined as the North Korean leader sought a scapegoat to blame for his disastrous second meeting with Mr Trump.
The Hanoi meeting was widely seen as a huge embarrassment for Mr Kim Jong Un, who is seen as infallible in his totalitarian state.
Mr Kim Jong Un had demanded that Mr Trump lift the most painful international sanctions against the North in return for partially dismantling the country's nuclear weapons facilities. The meeting collapsed when Mr Trump insisted on a quick and comprehensive rollback of the entire weapons of mass destruction programme before lifting sanctions, leaving Mr Kim to return home empty-handed.
Mr Lee Sang-min, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, said his ministry had no comment on Mr Kim Yong Chol's reappearance in North Korean media.
But he confirmed yesterday's report was the first time that North Korean state media had mentioned Mr Kim's name in 50 days.