Asia Pacific / Politics

'Purged' North Korean No. 2 reappears at event with Kim

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The apparent right-hand man of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who a report last week said may have been purged and sent to a labor and re-education camp, has appeared alongside Kim during a musical performance, state-run media said in a dispatch Monday.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Kim Yong Chol, who serves as a vice chairman of the powerful Central Committee of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), attended the performance Sunday with the country’s leader and several other top officials. It was not clear if Kim Yong Chol, a former spymaster, had earlier been sent to a camp and later released.

A report Friday in South Korea’s conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper had claimed, citing an unnamed source, that Kim Yong Chol had been sent to a labor and re-education camp in remote Jagang province and that top North Korean nuclear envoy, Kim Hyok Chol, and four other high-level officials had been executed by firing squad.

The reported executions and purge, which the newspaper claimed were in response to February’s failed U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, could not be independently verified.

Kim Yong Chol is believed to have been demoted in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service telling lawmakers in April that he had been replaced as director of the Central Committee’s United Front Department, which oversees relations with Seoul.

South Korean media and the government in Seoul have a long history of reporting seemingly outlandish stories that appear to throw back the veil of North Korea — home to one of the world’s most opaque regimes — that turn out to be wrong.

In 2013, the Chosun Ilbo reported that Hyon Song Wol, a glamorous North Korean singer the paper had described as Kim’s “ex-girlfriend,” was executed in public along with several other performers over accusations that they had made and sold pornographic films.

But Hyon, the leader of Kim Jong Un’s hand-picked all-female Moranbong band, proved to be very much alive and later emerged as a key member of the regime, accompanying the leader during his meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Still, in what could merely be a coincidence, the North had strong words for apparent traitors to the country last week when the WPK’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Thursday called out unspecified “betrayers, turncoats who demonstrate their loyalty to (the supreme leadership) only in words, and, even worse, change their colors by the flow of trends,” adding that they would come under the “stern judgment of the revolution.”

“To pretend to serve the suryong while dreaming different dreams when turning around is to commit anti-party and anti-revolutionary actions that abandon the moral loyalty for the suryong,” the newspaper said, referring to a revered title reserved for North Korean leaders.

The U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks have been deadlocked since the Hanoi summit in late February collapsed without a deal due to major differences over the scope of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by Washington.

Late last month, the North warned that the nuclear talks “will never be resumed” unless Washington halts what Pyongyang said were “hostile acts” and demands of “unilateral disarmament,” warning of a “fiercer” response if this continues.

Earlier in May, the North launched what the U.S. military has said were short-range ballistic missiles that ended a more than 500-day pause in the tests that began in late 2017.

Trump has been seemingly unaffected by the resumption of tests, denying during a state visit to Japan last week that the weapons were ballistic missiles and saying that he was not “personally bothered” by the launches.

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