Prominent North Korean official Kim Yang Gon died in a car accident Tuesday, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported early Wednesday. Kim was a highly significant official within the Pyongyang regime, having served as the North’s point man on inter-Korean relations for the past eight years and having been an apparent close confidant of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. His sudden death of raises the question of how his absence will affect inter-Korean relations and, potentially, regime politics.
Kim Yang Gon had a long career working in international and inter-Korean affairs for Pyongyang. He reached the senior ranks of the North’s diplomatic organs by the late 1980s. In 1986 he became a deputy director in the International Affairs Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea and a member of the Chosun Diplomatic Association (a.k.a. Korea Foreign Affairs Association). In 1991 he was elevated to vice chair of that association as well as chairman of the DPRK-Japan Amity and Friendship Association. In 1997, he rose to director of the WPK International Affairs Department. In 2007, Kim transitioned from international to inter-Korean affairs when he became director of the WPK United Front Department, the North’s primary organization for dealing with South Korea and inter-Korean relations.
Kim Yang Gon’s prominence increased with that of Kim Jong Un
Kim Yang Gon’s prominence increased with that of Kim Jong Un. From 2000 through 2009, Kim Yang Gon appeared alongside the DPRK leader (then Kim Jong Il) an average of 5.9 times per year. But from 2010 (when Kim Jong Un was officially designated as Kim Jong Il’s successor and become more publicly active) through his death at the end of 2015, Kim Yang Gon accompanied the North Korean leader (Kim Jong Il until December 2011 and Kim Jong Un afterward) an average of 38.2 times per year. This increase was not gradual either. In 2009, Kim Yang Gon made 16 appearances alongside Kim Jong Il but in 2010 he did so 74 times. It was also in September of 2010 that Kim Yang Gon was elevated to the senior-most levels in the WPK, becoming a full member and secretary and of the WPK Central Committee as well as an alternate member of the Politburo.
Most recently, Kim participated in two high-level inter-Korean talks. He made an unexpected visit to South Korea in October 2014, at the end of the Asian Games in Incheon, along with Hwang Pyong So and Choe Ryong Hae and held impromptu talks with South Korean officials. Last August, during a period of heightened inter-Korean tensions over a landmine detonation and subsequent exchange of artillery fire at the Demilitarized Zone, Kim Yang Gon personally proposed to the South to hold another round of inter-Korean talks, which he attended along with Hwang Pyong So.
Kim Yang Gon also appears to have advised Kim Jong Un closely on other international relations. He was one of the only officials to accompany the leader during a meeting with a Cuban delegation last September. He was also present when Kim Jong Un received a delegation of the Communist Party of China in October.
In addition to working outwardly on international and inter-Korean affairs, Kim Yang Gon was a prominent member of the regime’s inner circle under Kim Jong Un, appearing to be a close confidant of Kim Jong Un and likely able to directly influence regime policy. Kim Yang Gon accompanied Kim Jong Un of 104 of his total 742 public appearances since he became leader of North Korea in December 2011. In this regard, Kim Yang Gon was surpassed by only eight other officials. Kim Yang Gon attended functions that extended far beyond the purview of international and inter-Korean affairs, often joining Kim Jong Un on field guidance to economic activities and military drills and at political and cultural events. Kim Yang Gon was likely one of the most influential figures to the young North Korean leader.
What is unknown at this time, especially due to the unexpected nature of Kim’s death, is who will succeed Kim as Pyongyang’s point man on inter-Korean relations. Only a small number of North Korean officials have had extensive dealings with the South. The two highest-ranking officials with recent such experience are Choe Ryong Hae and Hwang Pyong So, both of whom are Party men with military ties.
Internal regime politics … will likely play a major role in the selection of Kim’s successor
It is likely, though, that at least one of Kim’s deputies has much knowledge and perhaps even experience (the North-South talks typically feature delegations with numerous officials not named in the media) and may share Kim’s policy views. Currently, the only other publicly known senior official of the United Front Department is Deputy Director Won Tong Yon. Won has rarely been seen in state media lately, but he was listed as member 66 out of 69 for Kim’s funeral committee. Another possible candidate is number 10 on the funeral committee, Kang Sok Ju. Kang has much experience in foreign affairs, is currently WPK secretary for International Affairs, and has held other high-level posts such as vice premier. Internal regime politics, however, will likely play a major role in the selection of Kim’s successor and, therefore, it is difficult to predict who that person will be.
This uncertainty has triggered some concern among North Korea watchers regarding the future of Pyongyang’s policy toward the South and inter-Korean relations.
According to North Korean leadership expert Michael Madden, Kim Yang Gon was a pragmatist and skilled bureaucrat who was able to preserve civilian influence over Pyongyang’s policymaking toward the South. According to Madden, it is likely Kim’s formal replacement may not be named until the 7th Congress of the WPK in May and, in the time until then, “more hawkish elements” could wield a great deal of influence over inter-Korean policy.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, also expressed concern that the sudden death of Kim Yang Gon could have a negative influence on North-South relations.
“Kim Yang Kon has been responsible for inter-Korean relations since the beginning of Kim Jong Un’s government,” Cheong told NK News. “The sudden death of Kim will inevitably lead inter-Korean relations into a state of vacuum for a certain period. Failure of recent high-level talks between the two Koreas and the aftermath of Kim’s death have a chance to even bring stagnation between the two Koreas.”
Featured image: Korean Central News Agency