SEOUL (Reuters) - The demotion of Kim Yong Chol, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s point man for nuclear talks with the United States, signals that long-time diplomats who had been sidelined from the process will return to center-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 Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kim Yong Chol remains a formidable force in Pyongyang but there is no word whether he has been given a new role in the ultra-secretive North Korean power structure. He did not accompany 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 Trump in February ended in disarray.
Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and his deputy, 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 Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul, referring to Kim Yong Chol’s demotion.
“This may not mean an immediate shift in their U.S. strategy, but the diplomats will likely take the initiative to contain the fallout from Hanoi and promote diplomacy with various countries.”
Kim Yong Chol was beside Kim through the last 12 months, including for his three meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, two with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the two Trump summits, in Singapore and Hanoi.
But for those who have known him as a hardline military general, Kim Yong Chol never seemed comfortable with the art of negotiating the roll back of his country’s nuclear program in exchange for concessions from the United States.
Kim avoided getting into details at negotiating sessions, 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, he kept a tight grip on the negotiations. It seemed like: ‘Over my dead body I’m going to let Ri Yong Ho take over,’” the source said, referring to the North’s foreign minister.
The collapse of the Hanoi summit was a major setback for Kim Jong Un, who, several sources said, was led to believe by hawkish aides like Kim Yong Chol that he was about to win sought-after sanctions relief in return for a promise to partially scrap nuclear facilities.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the demands Kim made of Trump in Hanoi had the hallmarks of the “best scenario” strategy advocated by hawks like Kim Yong Chol.
“But it turned out to be a scenario that the United States could never accept,” Cheong said. “Kim Jong Un cutting his reliance on Kim Yong Chol is a positive sign for the negotiations.”
While Ri has gradually been promoted under Kim, the influence of Vice Foreign Minister Choe has surged since the Hanoi summit, officials and North Korea experts said.
She was a junior player on the North’s U.S. diplomacy team in the 1990s and became the first vice foreign minister and a member of the powerful State Affairs Commission this month.
She held several news conferences after the collapse of the Hanoi summit, playing the rare role of conveying Kim Jong Un’s thinking.
Thae Yong Ho, former North Korean deputy ambassador in London who defected to the South in 2016, said Choe has joined an inner circle of women close to Kim Jong Un, including his sister and his wife.
“Now she’s the real spokeswoman for Kim Jong Un,” Thae told a forum hosted by the Asan Institute of Policy Studies on Wednesday in Seoul. “How can Choe read his mind? Because she has access.”
A diplomatic source also said Choe appears to have built rapport with Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s sister who is also a senior party official, which contributed to her recent promotion.
“We have to remember that (Foreign Minister) Ri and Choe are not only North Korea’s best people for the job of dealing with the U.S.,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the U.S.-based Stimson Center.
“But they both have known the leader since he was a small boy so there is a dynamic of their wanting to see Kim Jong Un thrive and succeed.”
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Jack Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan