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North Korea bolsters diplomatic lineup amid stalled US talks

FILE - In this April 10, 2019, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Kim was elected chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and a new premier was chosen by the government's parliament, the Korean Central News Agency reports. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified.(Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has retained his most important leadership post as his rubber-stamp parliament made a slew of personnel changes that bolstered his diplomatic lineup amid stalemated nuclear diplomacy with the United States.

Some observers say the personnel appointments could show Kim’s desire to keep nuclear diplomacy alive rather than returning to a policy of ratcheting up tensions. In Washington, President Donald Trump and visiting South Korean President met Thursday and agreed on the importance of nuclear talks with North Korea.

The North’s Korean Central News Agency reported Friday that Kim was re-elected as chairman of the State Affairs Commission at the first session of the Supreme People’s Assembly on Thursday. It said the assembly re-elected Kim because of “his outstanding ideological and theoretical wisdom and experienced and seasoned leadership.”

The 35-year-old Kim holds many government, military and ruling party leadership titles, but he officially rules the country in his capacity as the commission chairman. The assembly had first elected him to that post in 2016.

KCNA also published a list of other officials elected to top state posts. Among them is Choe Ryong Hae, one of Kim’s top lieutenants who was made president of the assembly’s Presidium. Choe was also elected to first vice-chairman of the State Affairs Commission, a new post.

By the constitution, the presidium president post is North Korea’s nominal head of state though all state power is heavily concentrated on Kim, the third-generation hereditary ruler of a family that has ruled the North since 1948.

Choe’s election to head the presidium means the departure of 91-year-old Kim Yong Nam, who has served all three generations of the ruling Kim family. His retirement has long been expected due to his age.

Three of the four senior officials involved in the nuclear negotiations with the U.S. have been re-elected or newly elected to members of Kim Jong Un’s state commission. Among them was former military intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol, who travelled to Washington and met Trump twice ahead of Kim Jong Un’s two summits with the president last year.

The fate of Kim Yong Chol had been the focus of South Korean media speculation since the second Kim-Trump summit ended without any agreement due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions on the North. The nuclear negotiator who wasn’t mentioned in the assembly-elected lineup is Kim Hyok Chol, the North’s special representative for U.S. affairs.

The North’s latest personnel changes show Choe strengthened his status as No. 2. His appointment to first vice-chairman of the state commission could also allow him to oversee the U.S. diplomacy while having the nuclear negotiators and others in the commission under his control, some observers say.

Choe has been a rising star since Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011. He went China and Russia as Kim’s special envoy, and has assumed a series of high-profile jobs including the top political officer in the North’s 1.2 million-member military. In 2015, however, South Korea’s spy agency speculated that he was briefly banished to a rural collective farm for reeducation.

“It’s a positive sign that Choe has gained greater influence in negotiations” with the United States, said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. He said there is a high chance for Kim Jong Un to send Choe as his special envoy.

Cheong said much of the responsibility for the failed nuclear diplomacy with the United States should be go to Kim Yong Chol, a hardline former military general blamed for two attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.

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