North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent his key confidant to the country's top school for reeducation, South Korea's intelligence officials said Thursday, in an apparent lenient punishment that could set the stage of his political comeback in the coming months, if not years.
"Choe Ryong-hae is receiving education at Kim Il Sung Higher Party School," an official said, referring to the top institution named after the country's founder, Kim's late grandfather.
The school in Pyongyang is the top institution where party officials are trained.
Choe, a senior secretary of the North's ruling Workers' Party, visited China a couple of times and is widely seen as North Korea's point man on China.
In 2013, Choe met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing as Kim's envoy. In September, Choe also visited Beijing for China's massive military parade.
Choe's whereabouts have been under the intense spotlight among officials and analysts in South Korea and other regional powers as he was not named as a member of a funeral committee of a senior military official who died last Saturday.
Choe also did not show up for the state funeral ceremony of Ri Ul-sol, marshal of North Korea's military, who died of lung cancer at the age of 94.
Choe's conspicuous absence sparked speculation among some analysts that he might have been ousted from the party's key post.
Still, the South Korean intelligence officials believe that Choe was not purged, though he is undergoing education at the Kim Il Sung Higher Party School for unspecified reasons.
The officials, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, did not give any details on how Choe ended up in reeducation at Kim Il Sung Higher Party School.
There is media speculation that it may be related to problems in building a dam near Mount Baekdu, which Pyongyang claims is the sacred birthplace of Kim Jong-il, North Korea's late leader and the father of the current leader Kim.
The South Korean officials said that reeducation at Kim Il Sung Higher Party School is the most lenient punishment, compared with writing a letter of self-criticism at home or serving time in rural areas or coal mines.
On Wednesday, North Korean state television aired footage of Choe when it aired a competition of "ssirum" ― a traditional Korean form of wrestling ― at a stadium in Pyongyang, the officials said.
The intelligence officials said they believe that the ssirum competition was held Tuesday. The North Korean state television usually reports events a day after they take place.
In 2014, the North's main newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, mentioned Choe's late father's case as an example of protecting the country's founder Kim Il-sung.
Choe Hyon, who served as a vice defence minister, pulled a pistol during a key party meeting in 1956 on the opposition in a factional strife against Kim Il-sung. The senior Choe's move dampened the spirits of those who opposed Kim, who later purged his political opponents.