N. Korea’s Kim shuffles nuclear talks team after defections
North Korean leader appoints new, younger advisers as mistrust grows over defections, allegations of spying
SEOUL: Veteran North Korean diplomats are being sidelined from nuclear talks ahead of a second summit with the US as recent defections and allegations of spying undermine the trust of leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean officials and experts say.
Mr Kim has purged and replaced many top diplomats and officials who served his father and grandfather with new and younger advisers as he gears up to meet US President Donald Trump in Vietnam next week.
Among the most significant changes is the appointment of little-known Kim Hyok Chol to spearhead working-level talks with US nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun.
A former ambassador to Spain who was expelled in 2017 after North Korean nuclear and missile tests, Mr Kim Hyok Chol has been working at the State Affairs Commission, a top governing body chaired by the young leader, a South Korean official said.
He replaced Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, who led negotiations in the run-up to the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June.
"It is a big boys' game and many diplomats are being neglected, as they face fierce inter-agency rivalry and questions about their ideological faithfulness given their experience in richer, capitalist nations," the South Korean official said, asking to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"Kim Hyok Chol is a career diplomat too, but he apparently has passed a loyalty test to become the point man in the negotiations."
The promotion of Mr Kim Hyok Chol, believed to be in his late 40s, was partly influenced by the 2016 defection of Mr Thae Yong Ho, a former deputy ambassador to Britain, and the recent disappearance of Mr Jo Song Gil, a senior diplomat in Italy, the official said.
Adding to Mr Kim Jong Un's mistrust in veteran diplomats, Mr Han Song Ryol, who was vice-foreign minister in charge of US relations until early last year, has been purged on charges of spying for the US, two sources with knowledge of the situation told Reuters.
Mr Han was one of the best known and highly respected North Korean diplomats in the US, having for years manned the so-called "New York channel", a key diplomatic conduit between Pyongyang and Washington, before returning home in 2013.
But Mr Han has been out of the public eye for the past year, with state media last mentioning him in February last year.
South Korea's Unification Ministry removed his name in its annual "Who's Who" in North Korea directory, released last month.
A diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters, citing North Korean officials, Mr Han was purged last year after being accused of spying for the US and pocketing funds.
Mr Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Centre who regularly speaks with sources inside the country, said two people told him that Mr Han faced "espionage charges" and disappeared last July.
Mr Thae also said Mr Han had been purged, which means he was likely to have been sent to a labour camp for re-education or possibly executed. - REUTERS