A senior North Korean official who was reportedly sent to a labour camp has attended a concert alongside the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, state media have said.
There had been speculation about the fate of Kim Yong-chol after a South Korean newspaper reported last week that he had been subjected to forced labour and “ideological education”.
This was said to be part of a purge of senior officials conducted after the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s summit meeting in February with Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam.
However, on Monday morning, the Pyongyang-run Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim Yong-chol had attended an art performance presented by the wives of military officers on Sunday.
The report listed him as among “leading officials” of the Workers’ party of Korea central committee in the audience. He was identified in a photograph as the man sitting five seats to the left of Kim Jong-un, although his face appears to be partially obscured by his hands.
Kim Yong-chol, a former spy chief, played an important role in setting up meetings between his leader and Trump over the past year.
Last June, he met the US president at the White House and hand-delivered a letter from the North Korean leader, helping to pave the way for the Singapore summit where the two sides agreed to a vague pledge to work towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Kim Yong-chol travelled to the White House for further talks in January. However, the subsequent leaders’ summit in Hanoi ended without a joint statement amid disagreement over North Korea’s push for sanctions relief.
While the current level of his influence with Kim Jong-un remains unclear, the consequences Kim Yong-chol faced for the summit’s collapse were reported to be on the lower end of the scale.
In the same report outlining the forced labour claims, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper claimed the regime had executed Kim Hyok-chol, the North’s special envoy to the US, and several foreign ministry officials in March. The paper cited unnamed North Korean sources.
There have been no known recent mentions of those officials in North Korean state media, but the Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary last week that people engaged in “anti-party, anti-revolutionary” acts would not avoid “stern judgment”.
Kim Jong-un is believed to have presided over several high-profile purges since he became leader in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
However, South Korean reports of North Korean executions and purges have sometimes turned out to be inaccurate, underlining the difficulty of ascertaining reliable accounts of the secretive state’s internal politics.
In 2015, South Korean media reported that Hyon Yong-chol, North Korea’s defence chief, had been executed with an anti-aircraft gun. South Korea’s national intelligence service later said it had been unable to verify that Hyon had been put to death.