One of the interesting parts of North Korean history is the number of officials who have, over the years, perished in car accidents: cases that often look quite suspicious and raise rumors about deliberate assassinations. In this article, I’ve tried to collect the biographies of the members of the North Korean elite whose lives ended in automobile accidents.
Born Yakov Petrovich Nam, Nam Il is one of the most interesting figures in early DPRK history. Born in the Russian Far East, during the Stalin years he worked as a teacher. In 1946, he went work in the Soviet occupation zone of Korea, leaving behind a wife and daughter.
Before the War, Nam Il worked in the education sector and after 1950 he was, quite surprisingly, appointed Chief of Staff, replacing Kang Kon who had been killed in action. In 1953, Nam became a General of the Army (대장, three-star rank at the time) and was head of the North Korean delegation which negotiated the armistice agreement.
After the war, Nam Il served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and, along with another Soviet Korean Pak Chong Ae, did his best to help Kim Il Sung break free from Soviet control. In 1957, he was rewarded with a promotion and became one of several deputy Prime Ministers.
And it was he, along with Pang Hak Se (the founder of the DPRK secret police), who was one of only a few prominent Soviet Koreans who managed to survive the notorious purges of the 1950s.
But on March 7, 1976, it was announced that he had died when his car was crushed by a truck. Many suspected that this was not an accident, and some blamed Kim Jong Il, who by that time was not powerful enough to simply order Nam be killed. Others said that it was done by Kim Il Sung.
Nam Il’s son, who lived in the Soviet Union, visited the North and attempted an investigation – after which Pang Hak Se told him to go home and stop meddling in affairs which do not concern him.
One of the best methods to check if someone has been formally purged in the DPRK is to check historical photos.
Nam Il, however, remains prominently featured in imagery of the signing of the 1953 armistice, while Kim Tu Bong (chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly) and Pak Chong Ae (Chairwoman of the Central Committee of the Union of Democratic Women) were removed. He, seemingly, did not become a non-person – the final, colorized version was several times featured in the Rodong Sinmun.
Kim Yong Sun
Kim Yong Sun was born in 1934 in Phyongwon country of South Phyongan province. When he was 20, he graduated from Kim Il Sung University’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Relations. In 1980, he became Party Secretary responsible for South Korea.
Kim held this position for decades. In 1998, it was he who signed the agreement to develop the Kumgang mountains with South Korea and he was also present at the signing of the inter-Korean declaration in 2000.
He was a prominent member of the elite and, reportedly, met with Hwang Jang Yop immediately prior to his defection to the South.
And then, on October 26, 2003, he died in a car accident.
Ri Chol Bong
Ri Chol Bong’s career was a rather unusual one. Beginning in the 1980s, he served as chief of the criminal police, Minister of City administration, Chairman of the Political Department of the Railroad Ministry, and finally as a Responsible Secretary for Kangwon province.
This career came to an abrupt end on December 25, 2009, when he died in a car accident.
Ri Jae Gang
Born in 1930, Ri Jae Gang began working in the Party’s Organization and Guidance Department in 1973 and in July 2001 became its First Deputy Chairman. Since the Chairman’s position was empty, this meant that Ri became a highly influential person – one of the most powerful in the country.
It seems that Ri Jae Gang was a key figure at the beginning of Kim Jong Un’s succession process, as it was he who Kim Jong Il called on Thursday, January 8, 2009, telling him that the decision has been made and that the “Young General” was to be the next leader.
The accident which took Ri’s life took place before Kim Jong Un’s accession to the throne, on June 2, 2010. It has been speculated that he was assassinated on the orders of the young Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who wanted to remove a powerful rival.
Kim Yang Gon
Kim Yang Gon succeeded Kim Yong Sun to the top position on the South Korean front and, eventually, suffered the same fate as his predecessor.
Kim’s tenure saw the peak of the Sunshine era of the middle 2000s and its decline following the right’s return to power in South Korea. He went to Seoul in 2009 to participate in the funeral of the late President Kim Dae-jung, and South Koreans who met him remembered Kim to be a soft and gentle man.
In 2014, Kim was a member of one of the most unusual North Korean delegations to ever visit South Korea. Consisting of himself, Hwang Pyong So, and Choe Ryong Hae, the triad of high-ranking officials visited the South on October 4 during the Asia Games.
Given that Kim Jong Un was ill at the time and had not been seen in public for a month, this event led to speculation that the delegation was going to inform Seoul about a successful coup and would sign a unification treaty in Incheon.
However, nothing came out of the meeting – at least openly – as if the delegation merely wanted to visit the South for the visit’s sake.
In a year, Kim Yang Gon died – officially, as his predecessor Kim Yong Sun had, in a car accident. The Supreme Leader paid his final respects to his body and in his speech at the Seventh Congress, Kim Jong Un mentioned Kim Yang Gon in the list of prominent figures who had passed away since the Sixth Congresses.
There is a chance that some of these accidents were actually accidents – the quality of roads in North Korea is very low and mistakes can be made even when a car is driven by an experienced driver – the recent death of 32 Chinese nationals in a bus accident is a good example.
In the case of an actual murder, these events are not very likely to have been orchestrated by the Supreme Leader. The ruling Kim can always order someone killed through a court, and, if he wants lesser punishment, demotion, exile, or imprisonment are always possibilities.
It is more likely, it seems, that these are the results of power struggles in the elite.
These stories are one of murkiest part of North Korean politics and there is a good chance the truth about them will never be uncovered. Some were likely murders, but orders like these were unlikely to have been put into writing – and, unless some of the participants will be willing to testify, those secrets will remain secrets.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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