Kim Yong Chol, the Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), disappeared from public view after a picture taken with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other members of the State Affairs Commission on April 12. He has now reappeared after a nearly two-month absence from public functions while rumors swirled around his whereabouts, including that he had been purged or sent to a labor camp.
North Korean state media has now put these rumors to rest with the publication of a recent photo, and Daily NK’s sources report that Kim Yong Chol remains a trusted advisor to the country’s leader.
Korea Central TV (KCTV) published a photo of Kim in a May 3 article reporting on Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju’s attendance at an arts performance by soldiers selected during the Seventh Military Family Arts Troupe of the Second Class on May 2. The picture shows Kim Yong Chol sitting five seats down from the left of Kim Jong Un.
A South Korean media outlet had reported that Kim Yong Chol was blamed for the failure of the US-North Korean summit in Hanoi and was sent to a forced labor camp in Jagang Province.
“Kim Yong Chol and Kim Jong Un were friends since their time at military university (Kim Il Sung Military University). Kim Jong Un trusts him so much that he sent him to the US,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK. “In short, [Kim Yong Chol’s absence meant that] he was given time to rest and contemplate rather than being blamed for the failure of the Hanoi summit.”
“Kim Yong Chol was not a target during the ‘ideological investigation’ that occurred within the United Front Department,” the source also noted, while suggested that Kim still retains considerable authority in North Korea. Daily NK previously reported that Kim Jong Un had ordered an ideological investigation into the United Front Department by the Party’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD)
It remains unclear whether the ideological investigation directly led to the change in leadership at the United Front Department, but international media reports suggested that Kim Yong Chol had taken responsibility for the Hanoi summit and left the position.
The Daily NK source at the time, however, was quoted as saying that “Kim Yong Chol will appear to take responsibility for the failure but he likely won’t be fired because that would make it seem like Kim Jong Un’s visit to Vietnam ended in failure.”
The publication of Kim Yong Chol’s picture at an event attended by Kim Jong Un suggests that he has retained at least some level of political favor.
“Kim Jong Un has a lot of confidence in Kim Yong Chol and if he had been punished or otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to appear along with the North Korean leader,” said a North Korea researcher at a South Korean state-run research institute on condition of anonymity. “Kim Jong Un’s trust in him and his political status seems secure for now.”
The researcher added, however, that Kim Yong Chol had clearly lost his position as head of the United Front Department. The order in which names were listed in the article showed that Kim still held his positions at the Party’s Political Department and the State Affairs Commission, but appeared to have lost his position as head of the United Front Department, which focuses on propaganda aimed at South Korea.
Kim Yong Chol’s name was listed after Ri Man Gon, the senior deputy director of the WPK’s OGD, Pak Kwang Ho, the head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Ri Su Yong, the head of the WPK’s International Affairs Department, Kim Pyong Hae, the director of the Personnel Department, Chae Hee, the head of the Labor Organization Department, An Jong Su, the head of the WPK’s Light Industry Department, Pak Thae Dok, the head of the Agricultural Department, and Pak Thae Song, chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
Interest is now centered on the type of role Kim will play in the future now that his whereabouts have been confirmed. “Kim Yong Chol will likely continue to influence policies toward South Korea and the US,” a source in Pyongyang told Daily NK. “Choe Son Hui will be the public face while Kim will help her behind the scenes, or the opposite could also happen.”
He also dismissed rumors that Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, had been “confined to her house,” prior to her reappearance on, saying that she had been “helping from behind the scenes,” and that going forward, she along with Kim Yong Chol and Choe Sun Hui will play “crucial roles in supporting Kim Jong Un.”