North Korea replaces director of United Front Department

Posted on : 2019-04-25 15:38 KST Modified on : 2019-04-25 15:38 KST
Replacement of Kim Yong-chol indicates changes in Pyongyang’s negotiating strategy with US
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with the State Affairs Commission
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with the State Affairs Commission

Reports indicate that Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol, who has overseen the North’s dealings with South Korea and the US, including its high-stakes denuclearization talks with the US, since last year, was abruptly replaced as the director of the WPK United Front Department by Jang Kum-chol, a member of the Korea-Asia-Pacific Peace Committee.

Rep. Lee Hye-hun, a lawmaker with the Bareunmirae Party and the chair of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, told the Hankyoreh over the telephone on Apr. 24 that she had heard this information from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Considering that Kim Yong-chol has been closely involved in three of North Korea’s summits with the South, two with the US and four with China since last year, his replacement is expected to have a considerable influence moving forward on the North’s personnel assignments and its negotiating strategy in relation to the US and South Korea.

Many think that the replacement of the United Front Department director is part of an effort to reapportion responsibilities for foreign relations inside North Korea’s ruling apparatus. The newly appointed director, Jang, is reported to be a man in his late fifties with experience handling private-sector exchange work at North Korea’s National Reconciliation Council and its Korea-Asia-Pacific Peace Committee. He was apparently the vice director of the United Front Department before his promotion to the directorship, but he is believed to be at some remove from both the denuclearization talks and from intelligence channels inside the department. This led a source in the South Korean government to conclude that “the United Front Department’s responsibilities appear to have been adjusted so that it will no longer handle the North’s relations with the US and instead focus on its relations with South Korea.”

For such reasons, no small number of experts believe that the reins of the denuclearization talks have passed from the United Front Department to the Foreign Ministry. “It was irregular for the denuclearization talks to be handled by the NIS in South Korea, the United Front Department in North Korea, and the CIA in the US. It was inevitable for [North Korea’s] Foreign Ministry to take the lead in the negotiations,” said Choi Yong-hwan, chief of security strategy research department of the Institute for National Security Strategy

Leading figures at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, including Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui, who has played a prominent role in the denuclearization talks, have long maintained a hardline stance in their dealings with the US, regarding it as a “hostile state.” At the same time, their close involvement with the critical issues of North Korea’s denuclearization and a proposed peace regime on the Korean Peninsula means that they would also be capable of professionally handling negotiations with the US, experts said. The Americans have expressed their frustration with Kim Yong-chol, complaining about the difficulty of negotiating with him.

Replacement of Kim connected to request to have Pompeo replaced

Kim’s replacement appears to be connected with the request for someone other than US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to take over the US’ negotiations with North Korea. “The replacement of Kim Yong-chol, who was Pompeo’s counterpart in the negotiations, sends a strong message to replace Pompeo,” said Hong Min, director of the North Korea research office at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). The South Korean government has also been saddled with the task of reorganizing its channels of communication with North Korea, which have been based on a link running from the NIS to the United Front Department.

Kim Yong-chol was not seen among the officials that accompanied North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on his first trip to Russia on Apr. 24. He has also been absent from a series of recent major political events in the North. While this has led some experts to regard Kim Yong-chol’s replacement as a reprimand for the lack of results during the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, the NIS’ conclusion is that Kim hasn’t fallen from power yet, considering that he maintains his posts on the State Affairs Commission and as vice chairman of the KWP Central Committee.

By Park Min-hee, Kim Ji-eun, and Jang Na-rye, staff reporters

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