Kim Jong-un’s move to replace hardline spy chief creates fresh uncertainty in nuke talks

A major regime shake-up by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the eight weeks since his failed summit with President Trump has set U.S. officials on edge amid uncertainty over whether high-level personnel changes in Pyongyang will help or damage the stalled nuclear talks. With the prospect of a third Trump-Kim summit hanging in the balance, U.S. officials are scrambling to make sense of Mr. Kim’s apparent sidelining of top adviser Kim Yong-chol, a 73-year-old hard-liner and former intelligence chief disliked by the Trump administration, in favor of a much younger and lesser-known regime apparatchik named Jang Kum-chol. American and South Korean sources said that while Mr. Jang’s name was rarely mentioned by North Korea’s state-controlled media until two weeks ago, he has been an influential behind-the-scenes player for years, with a reputation for favoring diplomacy over hard-line confrontation. In his late-50s, Mr. Jang comes from an elite North Korean family and has spent his entire career working within the ruling Korean Workers’ Party United Front Department (UFD), a powerful intelligence arm of the regime that has long overseen relations with South Korea and increasingly with the United States, the sources said. He is believed to have been elevated to replace Kim Yong-chol as head of the UFD, although it is not clear whether that means Mr. Kim, who once threatened to turn South Korea into a “hell of fires” and is accused of masterminding a major 2014 cyberattack against the United States, is being punished by Kim Jong-un or pushed into a more background role. Either way, analysts say, Mr. Jang’s promotion can be read in a variety of ways at a time of maximum uncertainty in U.S.-North Korean diplomacy. “Outside observers may not be familiar with Jang, but he is well known within the power structure in Pyongyang, having spent his career in the UFD,” said Robert Collins, a senior adviser to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea who has lived in South Korea more than four decades and is considered an authority on the regime in Pyongyang. “Jang also has a reputation there as a negotiator who is really the opposite of Kim Yong-chol, who is renowned for being an extreme hard nose in negotiations.” Longtime North Korea analyst Paik Haksoon, president of the Sejong Institute, a leading think tank in South Korea, went further, asserting that Mr. Jang’s sudden rise, coupled with the elevation last month of longtime nuclear negotiator and diplomat Choe Son-hui to the position of first vice foreign minister, was clearly meant by Kim Jong-un “to send a message.” “The North Koreans are playing politics by changing the players involved in the negotiations. By moving Jang and Choe to positions of more prominence, they are sending a signal to the Americans and to South Korea that North Korean negotiators may be more engaging diplomatically than Kim Yong-chol has been,” Mr. Paik said. “This is not a concession by North Korea,” he added, “but more of an overture to say that on a personal, attitudinal level, with regard to their personal negotiating styles, they could be more diplomatic.” But how they translate into tangible changes in the nuclear negotiations remains to be seen.

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