North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently ordered the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) to conduct an ideological investigation into the ruling party Central Committee’s United Front Department (UFD) due to its failure to achieve results in its diplomatic efforts aimed at the US and South Korea.
“Kim Jong Un ordered the OGD to conduct the investigation on April 10,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK. “The investigation is aimed at understanding the ideological state of the UFD, which has been the target of criticism, warnings and punishment for its failure to bring about results the Party desired in its strategies against the US and South Korea.”
The order was handed down because UFD high-level officials failed to understand American strategy, which led to the breakdown in talks at the US-North Korean summit in Hanoi. Moreover, the UFD and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had been working separately, which led to scant progress in North Korea’s talks with the South Korean government, the source related.
The order called for an Elementary Party Expanded Meeting and an Ideological Struggle Meeting among UDF section chiefs who are primary (elementary) Party committee members or higher. The order also included a call for efforts to change North Korea’s foreign policy situation by “clearing away” the stagnated ideological atmosphere that exists in the UDF to make way for new strategies and tactics toward the US and South Korea.
Kim Yong Chol, who has managed strategy toward the US and South Korea, was relieved from his command of the UDF in a move that appears to be related to the ideological investigation. During a National Assembly Intelligence Committee briefing, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported that Kim Yong Chol had been replaced by Jang Kum Chol.
At the Fourth General Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee on April 10, where Kim Jong Un handed down the order to investigate the UDF, a number of other officials were either hired or appointed to new positions. North Korean state-run media reported on April 11 that Jang Kum Chol had been appointed as department head, without naming which department he had been appointed to.
Kim Yong Chol’s exit from the scene appears to be the result of the breakdown in talks in Hanoi. A source in Pyongyang told Daily NK that Kim Yong Chol has taken responsibility for the failure of the Hanoi talks and that “he is not a target of the investigation but it appears that he will nonetheless take the blame for what happened.”
Kim Yong Chol was last seen in a commemorative photograph taken with Kim Jong Un and other members of the State Affairs Commission on April 12. On April 24, Kim was not seen at a sending-off ceremony for Kim Jong Un held at the station the North Korean leader was departing to head to a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The change in command at the UDF, however, may not be a firing of Kim Yong Chol at all, according to the Pyongyang-based source, who said that Kim may still in fact retain his positions as vice chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and as a member of the State Affairs Commission.
“Kim’s position still appears strong,” he said. “If something happened to him then it would make it appear like Kim Jong Un’s trip to Vietnam was a failure, so it’s likely hard to ‘overthrow’ or fire him in the current atmosphere.”
Kim Yong Chol created the space for US-North Korean denuclearization talks to began through the creation of a “spy line” between Suh Hoon, the head of the NIS, and American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Their cooperation led to the first and second US-North Korean summits. The second summit was deemed a failure, however, and it appears that authority over the future direction of foreign policy is now heading back into the hands of the MFA.
“Kim Yong Chol is a military man who was promoted quickly up the ranks to become Party vice-chairman. He was put in charge of US-North Korean negotiations, which really was not his area of expertise,” a North Korea observer at a South Korean government-run think tank told the Daily NK on condition of anonymity.
“He has thus been walking a very thin tightrope, and the failure of the second summit in Hanoi has pushed control over the denuclearization talks back into the hands of the MFA.”
As Kim Yong Chol has been pushed out of the realm of US-related policy, observers are focusing on changes in the leadership in the UDF toward South Korean policy particularly concerning Kim’s right-hand man, Ri Son Gwon, who is the chairman of the National Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.
“Ri is in a position not suitable for him, either, and so it’s true that the existing South Korean policy group led by Kim and Ri is in jeopardy,” said the expert. “We will need to watch carefully what happens to Ri.”