Daily NK has learned that Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs and a key figure in Pyongyang’s US policy, was reinstated early this month after undergoing three months of forced labor and ideological education. Choe – and only Choe – was reportedly punished by North Korea’s ruling party after tensions flared between her and Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon.

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Monday, Choe was sent to a collective farm in Pyongyang’s Hyongjesan District in July for three months of disciplinary labor.

The farm produces grains and vegetables for Central Committee cadres, and Choe was assigned to a vegetable production unit. Accordingly, her face is said to have darkened from farming peppers in the hot summer sun.

Choe managed to maintain her position after the failure of February’s summit between North Korea and the US in Hanoi even as Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the US, and Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee, fell out of favor.

Choe demonstrated she had North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s confidence when she became the only person of vice ministerial rank to join the State Affairs Commission and was promoted from vice minister to first vice minister during a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly two months after the Hanoi summit.

Moreover, as the adopted daughter of Choe Yong Rim, the former premier and close confidant of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, Choe has been treated with caution. The fact that somebody with her pedigree was given punishment has reportedly caused ripples within the Foreign Ministry.

The key reason behind Choe’s punishment was a written document sent by Foreign Minister Ri to the Central Committee, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

Ri and Choe had waged a continuous “war of nerves” after Ri, an ex-military officer who takes a hardline toward South Korea, was named foreign minister early this year. Those tensions are said to have surfaced after Ri joined the State Affairs Commission in April.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui at a press conference following the Hanoi Summit
Then North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui at a press conference following the Hanoi Summit. / Image: Yonhap News Agency

When the two clashed because of their failure to see eye-to-eye on policy toward the US, the Central Committee reportedly told them that they should submit separate proposals and let the party leadership make the final decision, rather than try to agree upon a single policy proposal.

The source claimed that, consequently, Ri and Choe submitted their proposals to the party leadership in July. Ultimately, the leadership took Ri’s side, and Choe was punished.

Some in the country reportedly claim that Ri’s proposal document contained not only policy proposals, but also criticism that Choe’s mistakes had harmed North Korea’s prestige.

When speculation emerged in July that an agreement with the US was possible prior to the US presidential election, Choe issued a statement critical of Washington, claiming that “[We] do not feel any need to sit face-to-face with the US” and that there was no need for dialogue or dealings with Washington “while hostile policy toward the DPRK disregarding the agreements already made at the past summit persist.”

Several days later during a visit to South Korea, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun refuted Choe’s statement, claiming Washington had made no request to meet with North Korea. This embarrassed North Korea, which had just rejected a US proposal for talks that in fact had not been made. Ri seized on this series of events to criticize Choe, according to the source. 

Since her statement in July, Choe has not been seen at official functions.

Some in the country also claim that Kim Yo Jong, first vice department director of the United Front Department and sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had a hand in Choe’s punishment. 

Unlike her brother, who has confidence in Choe, Kim has reportedly tried to keep Choe in check by encouraging the rivalry with Ri.

“Since Choe was recently reinstated, there were two proposals from the Foreign Ministry regarding US policy, and the Central Committee has accepted Choe’s one this time,” said the source. “It appears the party leadership will continue to use the tensions between the two.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Jang Seul Gi is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.