Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is reported to have purged senior aides ahead of a landmark summit on nuclear weapons next week with Donald Trump, the US president, in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.
Seasoned diplomats who have worked for the regime since the eras of Kim’s father and grandfather are said to have been replaced with new, younger advisers chosen for their ideology and loyalty.
The biggest rotation has been the removal of Choe Son Hui, the vice foreign minister who spearheaded nuclear talks ahead of the first summit between Mr Trump and Kim in Singapore in June, and her replacement with Kim Hyok Chol, a former ambassador to Spain.
According to Reuters, Mr Kim has been working at the State Affairs Commission, a top governing body chaired by the North Korean leader, and is now acting as negotiating partner to Stephen Biegun, the US envoy to North Korea. Mr Biegun has already landed in Hanoi for pre-summit planning.
“It’s 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,” a South Korean official told the newswire.
“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 reshuffle of top aides appears to be part of a wider purge of North Korea’s moneyed elite. An investigation by the North Korea Strategy Center, a Seoul-based think-tank, has detailed 50 to 70 individuals who have been targeted by Kim, reported the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
The crackdown, which has resulted in assets seizure, exile, imprisonment or the execution of suspected opponents of Kim’s diplomacy towards the US and South Korea has been portrayed as an anti-corruption drive but also hints at an effort to silence critics.
The young leader has become suspicious of veteran diplomats in particular after a couple of high-profile defections. Once-trusted officials who appear to have lost his confidence have paid the price.
Han Song Ryol, who was vice foreign minister in charge of US relations until early last year, has allegedly been purged on charges of spying for the United States.
Mr Han was previously one of the most highly respected North Korean diplomats working in the US, dealing extensively behind the scenes with the so-called “New York channel”, a vital diplomatic conduit between Pyongyang and Washington.
However, NK News reported in January that Mr Han had not been seen since last February and could have either retired or been killed.
Another report in the Chosun Ilbo, quoted an official in South Korea’s unification ministry as claiming that he had been sent to one of the regime’s most notorious hard labour camps.
Meanwhile, Ri Yong Ho, the foreign minister, is said to have been sidelined in favour of Kim Yong Chol, the former spy chief who met with President Trump in the White House earlier this year.
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Thae Yong Ho, a defector and former diplomat to London, speculated at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday that Kim had changed his negotiating team as a tactic to push Mr Trump to negotiate directly with him rather than rely on senior advisers.
Few details have been released yet on the agenda of next week’s summit which is scheduled to take place on Wednesday and Thursday.
However, Mr Trump revealed to reporters in Washington on Tuesday that while he wants to see North Korea eventually give up its nuclear weapons programme, that he is in no rush as relations with Pyongyang are currently good.
“I have no pressing time schedule,” he said, in a marked softening of the White House’s previous position ahead of the Singapore summit that North Korea should quickly commit to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation.”
Mr Trump added: “I really believe that North Korea can be a tremendous economic power when this is solved… As long as there is no [missile] testing, I’m in no rush. If there’s testing, that’s another deal.”
The second meeting of the two leaders is expected to take place in the Government Guesthouse, an elegant building in central Hanoi designed in a French colonial style, reported Reuters.
Kim, who had to borrow a Chinese plane to fly to Singapore, is set to arrive in Hanoi after a long journey by train, according to security and logistics planners.
It could take an estimated two and a half days to journey through China towards Vietnam and Kim’s train will stop in the border station of Dong Dang to allow him to travel the final 105 miles by car.
Hanoi is gearing up to roll out the red carpet for both leaders and their sizeable delegations, with US and North Korean flags already hanging by roadsides alongside a new emblem designed for the summit that shows two hands held together inside a blue circle.
In a quirky gimmick, one Hanoi barber has proposed the unique offer of haircuts styled in the fashion of Kim or Mr Trump.
Those customers bold enough to do so can opt for the sharp, slick top and shaved sides preferred by the North Korean leader or the orange tones made famous by the US president.