SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's most trusted policy adviser has been removed from one of his posts, a South Korean lawmaker said Wednesday, a reshuffle that if confirmed may be related to the breakdown of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi in February.
The head of parliament's intelligence committee, Lee Hye-hoon, cited South Korea's main spy agency as saying that Kim Yong Chol lost his Workers' Party post in charge of relations with South Korea earlier this month. He was replaced by little-known Jang Kum Chol as director of the party's United Front Department, Lee said.
Lee said she obtained the information at a private briefing by the National Intelligence Service.
Kim Yong Chol has been North Korea's top nuclear negotiator and the counterpart of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo since Kim Jong Un entered nuclear talks with the U.S. early last year. He traveled to Washington and met President Donald Trump twice before Kim's two summits with Trump.
His rise had baffled many North Korea watchers because he handled South Korea ties, not international or U.S. relations. Previously, he was a military intelligence chief believed to be behind a slew of provocations, including two deadly attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans and an alleged 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures. Both Seoul and Washington imposed sanctions on him in recent years.
The NIS and the Unification Ministry, a Seoul agency responsible for North Korea ties, said they could not immediately confirm the information on Kim Yong Chol.
The NIS has a spotty record in reporting developments in North Korea. But if confirmed, Kim Yong Chol's replacement would add to speculation that he is being sidelined from nuclear diplomacy to take responsibility for the failure of the Hanoi summit.
Kim Jong Un, who is desperate to revive his country's moribund economy, returned home empty-handed from Hanoi after Trump rejected his calls for easing U.S.-led sanctions in return for dismantling a key nuclear complex, a limited denuclearization step.
Kim Yong Chol isn't among a list of officials accompanying Kim Jong Un on his current visit to Russia, which began earlier Wednesday. Many experts in South Korea said North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui are likely to take the lead in the nuclear diplomacy.
"(North Korea's) significantly diminished reliance on Kim Yong Chol is a very positive sign for the denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States," said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea's Sejong Institute. He called Kim Yong Chol "most responsible" for the second summit's failure due to his hard-line stance.
While the NIS believes the personnel change possibly indicates that the United Front Department is now taking a back seat in the nuclear negotiations with Washington, the spy agency also said it wasn't immediately clear whether Kim Yong Chol would be removed from the talks entirely or immediately, Lee said.
Kim still holds several other prominent titles, including vice chairman of the Workers Party's Central Committee and member of the powerful State Affairs Commission.