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.
Sources familiar with intelligence on Mr. Jang said he is a graduate of Kim Il-sung University and is “detail-oriented and flexible,” despite having only “limited experience in diplomatic talks.”
He once served in North Korea’s Asia Pacific Committee, a key front organization of the UFD, and was for a time in charge of civilian exchanges between North and South Korea, having headed Pyongyang’s National Reconciliation Committee. He also participated in an official sports diplomacy visit to South Korea in 2002 at the Pusan Asian Games and in 2006 North-South military talks, as well as at least one meeting with a South Korean political leader in 2007, the sources said.
Mr. Paik cautions against reading Mr. Jang’s elevation as an indication that Kim Yong-chol has been totally removed from the North’s nuclear negotiations team.
“Kim Yong-chol may still be very much involved, just from the background,” he said. “Jang’s attitude may be more diplomatic. We don’t know exactly whether he will replace Kim Yong-chol when it comes to dealing with the United States.”
Kim Yong-chol was central to the drama that unfolded in late February at the Hanoi summit, which was abruptly cut short after President Trump and Kim Jong-un failed to strike a far-reaching deal to end the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Mr. Trump said he had to walk away because the North Koreans demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of their nuclear arsenal — a characterization Pyongyang later challenged.
The State Department declined this week to comment on the shake-up in Pyongyang.
However, Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative for North Korea, expressed optimism in a statement provided to The Washington Times on the prospect of momentum in talks.
“The United States remains ready to engage in constructive discussions with North Korea,” said Mr. Biegun, downplaying the setback in Vietnam. “In working-level discussions in Hanoi, extended talks gave us the opportunity to exchange detailed positions and narrow the gap on a number of issues between the United States and North Korea.”
But the subsequent regime shake-up has left many scratching their heads and questioning whether Kim Jong-un feels exposed and vulnerable at home given the failure to obtain economic relief during his trip to Hanoi.
Some analysts are wary that Mr. Biegun’s working-level North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok-chol — another key player in the Hanoi summit — may have been demoted or worse as part of the personnel changes in Pyongyang. North Korean state media reports have made no mention of Kim Hyok-chol of late.
North Korean outlets have also dropped any reference to another key working-level negotiator, Kim Song-hye, triggering speculation that the two may have been purged as punishment for how the Hanoi summit played out.
Focus on Kim
Some analysts caution against banking too much on new movement from Pyongyang’s personnel changes.
“The individual officials beneath Kim Jong-un are less important than oftentimes people trying to do Kremlinology on the North Korean regime make them out to be,” said former CIA Korea Deputy Division Chief Bruce Klingner, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
“The main thing to focus on is just what is North Korea’s position, regardless of who is sitting across the negotiating table,” Mr. Klingner said.
Kim Jong-un, he noted, cast a negative shadow on future talks in a mid-April speech setting a deadline for the Trump administration to make a “bold decision” to change its stance by the end of this year if it hopes to strike a deal.
“We don’t like — and we are not interested in — the United States’ way of dialogue,” Mr. Kim said, “in which it tries to unilaterally push through its demands. We don’t welcome — and we have no intention of repeating — the kind of summit meeting like the one held in Hanoi.”
While Pyongyang has carefully refrained from attacking Mr. Trump, North Korean officials have shown no restraint in attacking his advisers. The North Korean Foreign Ministry last month accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of “talking nonsense” and demanded that he be removed from the U.S. negotiating team.
Newly anointed First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui doubled down on the message this week by saying the U.S. will face “undesired consequences” if it does not change its stance on denuclearization, North Korea’s state media reported.
“The signs are not that good for a diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem,” Mr. Klingner said. “Overemphasizing the personnel changes, I think, kind of loses the bigger picture. Kim Jong-un is calling the shots. … He is the decider, so in a way, any other official is just the mouthpiece.”
David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and a North Korea analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it’s unclear whether the regime shake-up is cause for optimism.
“Obviously, it’s ‘Game of Thrones’ North Korea style, and we have to try to read the tea leaves,” he said. “But Pyongyang is so opaque that we just don’t know for sure what the whims are of Kim Jong-un.”