SEOUL • North Korean diplomat Choe Kang Il, an expert on US affairs, has been appointed as the new ambassador to Austria, replacing a son-in-law of the country's founder Kim Il Sung, said the North's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The announcement last Saturday confirms speculation that leader Kim Jong Un has summoned his distant family members back to North Korea, after several decades spent overseas.
Mr Choe, a deputy director-general for North American affairs at North Korea's Foreign Ministry, had been involved in nuclear talks with the US, including working-level negotiations ahead of the United States-North Korea summits in Singapore and Hanoi.
He was also part of North Korea's delegation to the closing ceremony of the Pyongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, accompanying Mr Kim Yong Chul, vice-chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party.
Mr Choe replaced Mr Kim Kwang Sop, who is married to Ms Kim Kyong Jin, the half-sister of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is the father of Mr Kim Jong Un.
Mr Kim Kwang Sop has served as the country's top diplomat in Austria for 27 years since 1993.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service speculates that he was recalled to the North late last year, along with Mr Kim Pyong Il, former ambassador to the Czech Republic and the exiled uncle of Mr Kim Jong Un.
The foreign ministry also confirmed that Mr Kim Pyong Il has been replaced by Mr Ju Won Chol, a diplomat with expertise in Europe, as the top diplomat to the Czech Republic.
Some observers believe Mr Kim Jong Un, the North's third-generation leader, has solidified his grip on the regime enough to feel less threatened by their return, while others suggest he is recalling them for a close watch.
The North's foreign ministry also announced ambassador to Britain Choe Il as the top diplomat to Poland, ambassador to Singapore Jong Song Il as the new ambassador to South Africa, and Mr Han Song U as the new ambassador to Iran.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK