SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korean senior official and former top nuclear envoy Kim Yong Chol accompanied leader Kim Jong Un to a Sunday art performance, state media KCNA said on Monday (June 3), signalling that the former spymaster is alive and remains a force in North Korea's power structure.
South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported last Friday that Mr Kim Yong Chol, Mr Kim Jong Un's right-hand man and the counterpart to United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the failed Hanoi summit, had been sent to a labour and re-education camp in Jagang province near the Chinese border, citing an unidentified North Korea source.
Asked about the last US contact with Mr Kim Yong Chol and North Korea in general on Sunday, Mr Pompeo declined to answer, saying: "We conduct our negotiations in private."
During an amateur art performance by the wives of officers in the North Korean Army attended by Mr Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju on Sunday, Mr Kim Yong Chol was among "leading officials" who accompanied them, according to KCNA on Monday.
He was the 10th official named among 12 mentioned overall.
As Mr Kim Jong Un's point man for nuclear talks with the US, Mr Kim Yong Chol was apparently censured for the summit's collapse by being removed from a key party post, a South Korean lawmaker said in April.
He was pictured standing behind Mr Kim Jong Un in an official photo released from a session of North Korea's rubber-stamp legislature in April, but did not accompany the leader on his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin later that month.
"Kim Yong Chol appears to have been pushed back from power since the Hanoi summit," said Mr Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. "But exactly how much is something we’re not able to figure out."
The Chosun Ilbo story, which Reuters was unable to independently confirm, also said North Korea executed its working-level nuclear envoy to the US, Mr Kim Hyok Chol, as part of a purge of officials who steered negotiations for the collapsed summit in February.
"It’s very difficult to factually verify North Korean top leadership purges or removals," said Mr Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "It takes a long time because you need to check that they continually don’t appear in public, who took their position, who replaced who."
Officials who worked with Mr Kim Yong Chol have been out of the public eye since the summit, while seasoned diplomats who appeared to have been sidelined, including Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, were seen returning to the spotlight.