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(2nd LD) N. Korean leader watches art performance with Kim Yong-chol amid rumor of purge

All News 08:43 June 03, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS details throughout, photo)

SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has watched an art troupe's performance, along with his top aides, including Kim Yong-chol, who is rumored to have been punished for February's no-deal summit with the United States, Pyongyang's media reported Monday.

The leader attended the performance "given by amateur art groups of the wives of officers of units of the Korean People's Army (KPA) selected in the seventh round of the second-term contest of art groups of KPA officers' wives," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

He appeared with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, and other top officials, including Kim Yong-chol, who served as his chief interlocutor in nuclear talks with the United Sates, it added.

Speculation has grown that Kim might have carried out a massive purge to punish officials responsible for the no-deal summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Such rumors spiked last week after a local daily reported that Kim Yong-chol was punished with hard labor and another negotiator was executed.

The Hanoi summit failed to produce a deal as the leaders could not find common ground over how to match Pyongyang's denuclearization steps with Washington's sanctions relief.

This photo provided by the Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, along with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, watching a performance by amateur art groups of the wives of officers of units of the Korean People's Army (KPA). (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

Last week, the Chosun Ilbo, a major daily in Seoul, reported that North Korea had executed Kim Hyok-chol, its special envoy for the U.S., and some foreign ministry officials, citing anonymous sources. It added that Kim Yong-chol is going through hard labor in a remote province.

South Korea's presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae, earlier said it's premature to conclude that such a purge is actually under way in North Korea.

"There's nothing we can confirm (for you)," Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Ko Min-jung told reporters Friday. "We are monitoring all related situations (on North Korea). But I think it's important to figure out how much information in the article has been confirmed,

In April, Seoul's spy agency said that Kim Yong-chol had been replaced by Jang Kum-chol, a little known official to the outside, as the director of the United Front Department. The North has yet to confirm the replacement.

Kim's possible replacement was seen as intended to hold him accountable for the ill-fated February summit.

Despite the replacement, observers say that Kim Yong-chol is expected to maintain his post as a vice chairman of the central committee of the North's ruling party. Monday's KCNA report referred to him as "comrade," not using any job title mentioning his name.



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