Kim Jong Un’s Cryptic Moves Puzzle North Korea Watchers

(Bloomberg) -- A swirl of mysterious personnel changes in Pyongyang have fueled speculation that Kim Jong Un could be changing negotiating tacks after U.S. 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 Kim’s first foreign trip since the Hanoi summit -- a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While one diplomat who participated in the U.S. talks got a promotion, others such as Kim’s sister, his chief negotiator and the man he sent to broker both his meetings with Trump have faded from view.

Kim Jong Un’s Cryptic Moves Puzzle North Korea Watchers

The moves could indicate that Kim’s purging ranks -- not uncommon in the one-party dictatorship -- or they could point to developments unknown to outside observers. Either way, there’s no indication that Kim is any more willing to agree to give up his nuclear weapons program for sanctions relief as the U.S. has demanded.

Here’s what’s become of Kim’s negotiating team since the summit:

Kim Yong Chol, State Affairs Commission

Kim Jong Un’s Cryptic Moves Puzzle North Korea Watchers

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 Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Last month, 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 Kim Jong Un’s side during meetings with Putin last week in Russia. Experts disagree over whether the change was a demotion. He was re-appointed to the 14-member State Affairs Commission led by 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 Kim Yong Chol’s status appears unchanged for now.

“Whether he will still play a role remains to be seen,” said 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

Kim Jong Un’s Cryptic Moves Puzzle North Korea Watchers

The veteran diplomat who once denounced 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 Kim Jong Un side in recent diplomatic events, including the meetings with Putin in Vladivostok.

The absence of other power players such as Kim Yong Chol from such events could potentially increase both Ri’s and the foreign ministry’s influence. But his presence suggests more continuity than change in North Korea’s approach toward Washington, since Ri has been foreign minister since 2016 and has helped manage relations with the U.S. and other foreign countries as a diplomat for more than two decades.

Choe Son Hui, First Vice Foreign Minister

Kim Jong Un’s Cryptic Moves Puzzle North Korea Watchers

Among the most surprising developments has been the ascent of Choe Son Hui. 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 Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear envoy.

Since participating the Hanoi talks, Choe has been promoted to the State Affairs Commission alongside Ri and received the title of first vice foreign minister. She has enjoyed other nods of trust from Kim Jong Un, sharing his table with 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 criticizing top U.S. officials in state media reports, calling National Security Adviser John Bolton “dim-sighted.” The South Korean official said the government believed Choe would play a big role going forward.

“Kim Jong Un’s confidence in Choe is very special,” said 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

Kim Jong Un’s Cryptic Moves Puzzle North Korea Watchers

Part royal representative, part personal assistant, Kim Yo Jong 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 Kim Jong Un in his summits with Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, she’s also performed mundane tasks, such as helping the leader extinguish a cigarette during a train stop in China.

That proximity to power has made Kim Yo Jong’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’s too soon to know whether she’s been demoted, said 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,” Lee said.

Kim Hyok Chol, Chief Negotiator

Kim Jong Un’s Cryptic Moves Puzzle North Korea Watchers

A career diplomat known for his expertise in nuclear deterrence against the U.S., 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 Trump and North Korean officials, asking who he was.

In the aftermath of the Hanoi talks, 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. Lee Hye-hoon, the South Korean lawmaker, said intelligence officials wouldn’t confirm whether Kim Hyok Chol had been punished.

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

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