North reports top official’s death in car accident

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Kim Yang-gon, the top North Korean official in charge of handling inter-Korean policies has died following an early morning car accident, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on Wednesday. He was 73.

The United Front Department director, who was in charge of ties with South Korea, was killed in a “traffic accident” at around 6:15 a.m. on Tuesday, the North’s official media outlet said, without providing further details.

The KCNA praised Kim, calling him a “devoted revolutionary comrade” for North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his grandson, current leader Kim Jong-un.

“He is the great son of the people and the party, which have fought hard to achieve the glory of the revolution,” it said.

North Korea announced a 69-member funeral committee to be led by Kim Jong-un. A state funeral will be held today in Pyongyang.

Hong Yong-pyo, South Korea’s minister of unification, sent official condolences on Wednesday. The two men participated in high-level talks this summer to quell tensions following land mine blasts in the demilitarized zone that maimed two South Korean soldiers and put both countries on the brink of war.

Kim’s unexpected death has clouded prospects for an imminent improvement in inter-Korean ties. The veteran statesman had years of experience in dealing with the South.

The fatal accident occurred just four months after Kim was sent to the border village of Panmunjom with Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so to negotiate a deal with South Korea’s national security director, Kim Kwan-jin, and Hong, the unification minister.

The talks came amid heightened tensions on the peninsula in August and concluded with an unprecedented six-point agreement between both sides.

The South Korean government is likely to keep an eye on the potential impact Kim’s absence will have on the direction of Pyongyang’s inter-Korean policy.

“We can’t give specific answers to questions regarding the impact of his death on South-North relations at this moment. But it is necessary to keep watch on the possible aftermath, considering his role in the North’s inter-Korean policy,” Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said during a press briefing on Wednesday.

By many experts, Kim was seen as a veteran diplomatic negotiator who often displayed flexibility due to his in-depth experience and knowledge of inter-Korean relations and international affairs.

He was believed to have played a key role in arranging the summit between former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun in 2007, just after he was named the director of the United Front Department in March that same year.

Kim accompanied the late North Korean leader during the summit and is also one of only a handful of North Korean officials who visited South Korea multiple times.

In 2009, he visited Seoul as a member of Pyongyang’s special delegation to pay condolences after the death of former President Kim Dae-jung. He returned to the South in September 2014 to attend the closing ceremony of the Incheon Asian Games.

“With Kim’s death, the North will have to reshuffle its branch responsible for inter-Korean policies to fill in his post. But given the magnitude of his experience, its capacity will inevitably shrink,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University.

Kim’s death, Lim added, comes at a time when Pyongyang has appeared to have lost interest in improving ties with Seoul.

The late Kim was essentially serving a dual role when he died, covering for Kang Suk-ju, a party secretary responsible for diplomatic ties who has reportedly been ill, which has sparked speculation about whether Pyongyang’s efforts to mend its relationship with Beijing could be hampered.

The North’s swiftness in announcing Kim death also surprised observers here. Jeong, the ministry spokesman, said it was the first time Pyongyang had officially identified a traffic accident as the cause of death for one of its senior officials.

However, the lack of further details has also bred suspicions that Kim’s death could have been a hit.

However, lawmakers briefed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told local media that, as the spy agency understood, Kim had been killed in an accident as announced. They added that Kim had always stood free from internal disputes.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]