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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol has been replaced as director of the ruling party Central Committee’s United Front Department (UFD), a lawmaker from the South Korean National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee told local media on Wednesday.
Citing a briefing from the country’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), multiple South Korean outlets reported, Lee Hye-hoon said that Jang Kum Chol had been tapped to replace Kim.
The news, should it be confirmed, would see Kim Yong Chol step down from the powerful position less than three years after taking up the post in May 2016.
His purported replacement, Jang Kum Chol, was earlier in the month appointed a director at the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee at the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th WPK Central Committee.
It was not, however, confirmed which department he would head up.
And although the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun reported that the meeting had dismissed and appointed directors at the Party Central Committee, the list of demoted officials was not provided.
That plenary meeting also saw Jang directly elected as a member of the WPK Central Committee along with several others, including first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui.
The National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, however, reportedly confirmed that Jang has served as head of civilian inter-Korean exchanges at the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (KAPPC) and the Consultative Council for National Reconciliation (CCNR).
The UFD, KAPPC, and CCNR have in the past year been tasked with managing inter-Korean issues, alongside other organs including the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC).
The South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) describes the UFD as a “core department of directing overall projects with South Korea including inter-Korean talks, economic cooperation, civilian exchanges, and collection and analysis on data.”
The ROK MOU on Wednesday said Jang had not been publicly named by DPRK state-run media before this month’s fourth plenary meeting.
“We do not have any records of his/her participation in talks and exchange events in the past,” the ministry said in a written statement.
An official by the name of Jang Kum Chol was in May 2007 reported having attended an inter-Korean farewell banquet in their capacity as a CCNR member, according to Yonhap News Agency.
It is not clear if this is the same official, however.
South Korea’s spy agency on Wednesday was quoted as having said that it would be premature to see the reshuffle as representing a demotion for Kim Yong Chol.
“Given that vice-chairman Kim’s name remains on the list of members of the Political Bureau of the Party, it is difficult to conclude this to be his downfall,” South Korean outlet MoneyToday reported Lee Hye-hoon as having said.
“The UFD director is the person who should handle relations with the U.S. and the nuclear issue, but the NIS judged that he (Jang) does not have any [related] experiences,” Lee said.
The announcement follows news that Kim Yong Chol will not accompany North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a trip this week to Vladivostok for a high-profile summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Foreign minister Ri Yong Ho and first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui were of the part of the entourage, however.
The move represents the first time that Kim Yong Chol has not accompanied the DPRK leader on an overseas trip.
Kim was present at three inter-Korean summits held last year, and it is widely believed that he and NIS director Suh Hoon operate a clandestine communications channel.
He has also served as a key interlocutor in DPRK-U.S. nuclear negotiations, visiting the White House in June 2018 and January 2019 ahead of the first and second summits between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump to deliver letters from Kim Jong Un.
Cheong Seong-chang, Vice President of Research Planning at the Sejong Institute, said that Kim would likely still have “limited influence” due to his continued role as vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee and election as a member of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) at this month’s First Session of the 14th SPA.
Given that Kim likely played a major role in the breakdown of February’s no-deal U.S.-DPRK Hanoi summit, Cheong continued, his absence from this week’s Kim-Putin meeting could positively affect prospects for denuclearization.
“It is a very positive sign for nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. if [Kim’s] dependence on Kim Yong Chol is significantly reduced,” he added.
“That… Kim Yong Chol, representing the position of the military, has been replaced by Jang Kum Chol, who is in charge of tasks pertinent to civilian exchanges, increases the likelihood that North Korea’s attitude toward South Korea will change in a flexible and pragmatic direction.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Joint Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps