SEOUL — A senior official who was reported last week as being the victim of a purge in North Korea has reappeared in public sitting not far from the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
The reemergence of Kim Yong Chol, a powerful, hard-line former spy chief and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s counterpart in talks with the United States, underlines how opaque the North Korean regime remains to the outside world.
It also is a reminder of how little outsiders know about how Kim Jong Un reacted to the breakdown of his recent summit with President Trump.
Rumors of Kim Yong Chol’s demotion have circulated since last month, when he did not accompany Kim Jong Un to Vladivostok to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, an unusual occurrence for a man who is normally not far from his leader’s side on international trips.
South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported Friday that he had been sentenced to hard labor and ideological reeducation as punishment for the failure of the summit with Trump in Hanoi in late February.
The newspaper also reported that Kim Hyok Chol, the counterpart of U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun in pre-summit negotiations, had been executed, although many diplomats and experts expressed caution or outright skepticism about that claim.
Now, North Korean state media outlets have shown Kim Yong Chol, sitting five seats down from Kim Jong Un at an event where the wives of military officers gave an artistic performance. While everyone else was applauding, Kim Yong Chol was shown with his hands on his face, although he was easily recognizable.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst with the North Korea-focused website NK Pro, said Kim Yong Chol was named among the attendees as his position in the Politburo would merit, implying no formal demotion in rank — 10th among the 12 officials listed in order of seniority.
But Lee said the fact that Kim Yong Chol did not accompany his leader to Russia — and that he earlier reportedly had been replaced as head of the United Front Department, a ruling-party body in charge of ties with South Korea — implied “a demotion in a way.”
The idea that Kim Yong Chol had been purged also appeared to be contradicted by his being listed as having been reelected to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, and to the State Affairs Commission, a key decision-making body, in mid-April, the NK News website, the sister site to NK Pro, pointed out.
Kim Hyok Chol, meanwhile, has not been seen in public since the Hanoi summit, although some experts say it would make little sense for Kim Jong Un to order his execution after going to great lengths to try to build up his own image as a global statesman.
If he imposed such a harsh punishment purely to have a scapegoat, no one within the regime would “dare engage in negotiations with the outside world anymore,” said Cheong Seong-chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute. “It’s very unlikely for Kim to wield such an extreme punishment unless he has given up on talks with the United States.”
Cheong also said Kim Hyok Chol was seen on April 13, citing a source familiar with the matter.
“It’s true that Kim Jong Un turns to purges and fear politics to solidify his absolute power,” he said. “But it is not sensible at all to conclude an official has been purged because of prolonged absence from the public eye, given how many of them turned out to have been temporary demotions or personnel shake-ups, especially when basing it on ‘North Korean sources,’ which are difficult to have confidence in.”
But Kim Yong Chol’s appearance was not the only surreal scene in the theater in Pyongyang over the weekend.
What had Kim Yong Un and his entourage applauding so enthusiastically was a musical performance by the wives of military officers, in which they sang about how they “make every moment of their lives honorable with ardent yearning for the leader and boundless loyalty to him.”
Pieces included “Yearning,” as well as a chorus performance of “Our Leader Loved by People,” an accordion ensemble and chorus presentation of “Our National Flag,” a chorus performance of “Ardent Desire,” an instrumental trio presentation of “Beautiful Vapor Trail” and a national instrumental ensemble performance of “Our Socialism Is the Best in the World.”
The state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that “the performance was highly acclaimed by the audience for successfully showing that the defense line of the country is impregnable as long as there is a large unit of women revolutionaries who bear in mind the great trust and expectation of the Party Central Committee and add dynamism to the revolution with love and devotion.”
Denyer reported from Hokkaido, Japan.