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(LEAD) Ranking N.K. party official makes first inspection in 33 months

All News 14:33 January 06, 2017

(ATTN: CLARIFIES para 4; ADDS Seoul's response in last 2 paras)

SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- Choe Ryong-hae, a ranking North Korean party official, has visited a steel factory in North Korea's central and west province, Pyongyang's state media said Friday, marking his first on-site inspection in 33 months.

Choe, a vice chairman of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), visited the Hwanghae Iron and Steel Complex located in North Hwanghae Province to encourage workers and spur production, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

It marked his first inspection since April 2014 when he served as director of the military's general political bureau, which is currently assumed by Hwang Pyong-so, widely viewed as the No. 2 official in North Korea. They are both key aides to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

(LEAD) Ranking N.K. party official makes first inspection in 33 months - 1

The on-site survey has been conducted by ranking officials, including the premier, since 2011 as a way of checking situations in the economic sector.

North Korea's leader usually makes the on-site "field guidance" to military units and other key places, accompanied by his entourage.

The North's media previously reported on Choe's field surveys on nine occasions for two years starting April 2012. Hwang has accompanied the country's leader on his on-site tours, but has not conducted field surveys as a top military official.

Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University, said that the resumption of Choe's on-site visits might indicate that he is effectively viewed as the second highest official in the North.

Choe was sent to a rural farm in November 2015 as punishment for his mishandling of a newly built hydroelectric power plant project, but was reinstated a few weeks later, according to Seoul's spy agency.

South Korea's unification ministry said that it is too premature to say that Choe may have regained the status of North Korea's No. 2 official.

"It is rare for Choe to carry out the on-site inspection, but it is too early to give weight to his activity," Jeong Joon-hee, ministry spokesman, told a regular press briefing.


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