SEOUL • The demotion of Mr Kim Yong Chol, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's point man for nuclear talks with the US, signals that long-time diplomats who had been sidelined from the process will return to centre stage, diplomatic sources in Seoul and regional experts said.
The hawkish former general and spymaster was recently removed from a key party post, taking the fall for the failed Hanoi summit between Mr Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.
Mr Kim Yong Chol did not accompany Mr Kim Jong Un to Russia this week for a summit with President Vladimir Putin, the North Korean leader's first international foray since his Hanoi meeting with Mr Trump in February ended in disarray. Instead, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and his deputy, Ms Choe Son Hui, flanked the North Korean leader at the meeting in Vladivostok, including riding in his car, a highly unusual display of proximity.
"The Hanoi summit damaged the North's long-held principle that its leader never makes an error, so they have to shift the blame," said Professor Kim Hyun-wook of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, referring to Mr Kim Yong Chol's demotion. "This may not mean an immediate shift in their US strategy, but the diplomats will likely take the initiative to contain the fallout from Hanoi and promote diplomacy with various countries."
During negotiating sessions, Mr Kim Yong Chol avoided getting into details, instead leaving it to diplomats to build strategy, two diplomatic sources in Seoul familiar with the North's diplomatic engagements said. Even then, he refused to yield control, one of the sources said, "whether or not he understood the issues".
The collapse of the Hanoi summit was a major setback for Mr Kim Jong Un, who, several sources said, was led to believe by hawkish aides like Mr Kim Yong Chol that he was about to win sought-after sanctions relief in return for a promise to partially scrap nuclear facilities.
Dr Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea's Sejong Institute, said the demands the North Korean leader made of Mr Trump in Hanoi had the hallmarks of the "best scenario" strategy advocated by hawks like Mr Kim Yong Chol. "But it turned out to be a scenario that the United States could never accept," Dr Cheong said. "Kim Jong Un cutting his reliance on Kim Yong Chol is a positive sign for the negotiations."