Top North Korean official Kim Yong Chol appeared in public alongside DPRK leader Kim Jong Un at a musical performance on Sunday, the country’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported, potentially defying reports last week that he had been the victim of a high-profile purge earlier in the year.
In a report on an art performance given by wives of officers of units of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the North Korean leader was accompanied by several top officials, including Kim Yong Chol, who serves as a vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
Reports on Friday in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper had claimed, citing unnamed sources, that Kim had been sent to a labor and reeducation camp in the country’s remote Jagang province.
The reported purge, which the newspaper alleged to have served to punish officials for February’s failed DPRK-U.S. summit in Hanoi, was also said to have seen top North Korean envoy Kim Hyok Chol executed by firing squad.
NK News was unable to verify those reports, which were widely republished by international media.
Asked about the rumors on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was seeking to verify the claims.
“We’ve seen the reporting to which you are referring,” he said. “We’re doing our best to check it out. I don’t have anything else to add to that today.”
Kim served as a key interlocutor in recent 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.
He is believed, however, to have been partially demoted in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, with South Korean intelligence in April telling local lawmakers that he had been replaced as director of the ruling party Central Committee’s United Front Department (UFD).
Despite this, the South Korean government at the time insisted said that it would be premature to see the reshuffle as representing a demotion for Kim, due to his continued membership of the DPRK ruling party’s Politburo and his membership of the State Affairs Commission (SAC).
Monday represented his first appearance in state media since mid-April, when he was reported to have been elected to the country’s SAC by the first session of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA).
One expert said the Monday KCNA report suggested that Kim’s title remains unchanged for the time being.
“Although it is difficult to say for sure, as the listing of the attending officials in this report is not the full list of party Political Bureau members, the placement of Kim Yong Chol’s name on the list suggests that his status in the party Political Bureau has not changed,” said Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro.
“This seems to suggest that Kim Yong Chol likely retains his other major party title of ‘party Central Committee vice chairman’ and his State Affairs Commission member title.”
Kim’s reemergence just days after having been reported to have been purged, too, is not the first time a prominent North Korean figure has re-appeared following unsourced claims of their demise.
Most famously, singer Hyon Song Wol showed up alive and well in Pyongyang in May 2014, just a few months after reports claimed she had been executed.
Another expert said Monday’s revelations served as a “reflection of why informed North Korea experts were so skeptical of the recent Chosun Ilbo report.”
“It was hard to conceive, based on the latest information, of Kim Yong Chol being purged in the way reported,” Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department East Asia Desk Officer, told NK News.
“While there’s no doubt people involved likely faced consequences after Hanoi, this reminds us why we need to be careful about details and speculation.”
Featured image: KCNA, modified by NK News