Kim Yong-chol, the man who was responsible for the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, has been rehabilitated after a surprise demotion.
The official Rodong Sinmun daily on Tuesday ran a photo of Kim Yomg-chol applauding at a musical performance that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also attended. It shows him with his former insignia of a four-star general after he was demoted to lieutenant general three months ago.
An intelligence source here said 10 top North Korean military officials had either been demoted or sacked in October and November of last year, but only two were rehabilitated. They are new army chief Choe Ryong-hae and Kim Yong-chol.
"This clearly shows who Kim Jong-un trusts in the North Korean military," the source said.
South Korean intelligence officials believe Kim Yong-chol was demoted by two ranks because of his poor performance last year. "He had been unable to rack up any notable achievements in 2012 and was held responsible for the arrests of a large number of North Korean spies in South Korea," a government source said.
Kim heads the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which spearheads spying and infiltration in South Korea. It was created in February 2009, when Kim Jong-un was fingered as the successor to his father.
One high-ranking North Korean defector said Kim Yong-chol's rehabilitation "is a proclamation that Kim Jong-un has regained confidence in him."
The defector predicted North Korean provocations will now intensify with the start of the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea and stronger international sanctions against the North.
Kim Yong-chol, the first head of the bureau, is believed to have orchestrated cyber attacks on South Korean firms and institutions in July 2009; a naval confrontation with South Korea in November that year; an assassination attempt on Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector, in February 2010; the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010; the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of 2010; a hacking attempt on Nonghyup Bank; and the jamming of South Korean GPS signals between 2010 and 2012.
Kim is no stranger to South Korean officials since he appeared regularly in talks with the South since 1989, when he was a major general. He became an experienced hand in negotiations and gained former leader Kim Jong-il's trust.
One Unification Ministry official who negotiated with him said he "always appeared when it was time to reach a decision. He has nerves of steel."