SEOUL - A top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un who oversaw relations with the South has died in a traffic accident, Pyongyang’s state media said Wednesday, a loss seen as a setback for reconciliation efforts.
Kim Yang-Gon, who was a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, “died in a traffic accident Tuesday at age 73”, the Korean Central News Agency said. It described the deceased as the leader’s “most trustworthy aide” and said a state funeral would be held.
Leader Kim has earned a reputation for ruthlessness after sacking previous high-ranking officials and having his uncle executed. One South Korean analyst said there was no evidence of foul play in the death but it could not be ruled out. “Kim Yang-Gon was becoming too close to the leader, which must have incurred great jealousy among political rivals,” Prof Yang Moo-Jin told AFP.
While announcing the members of a state funeral committee, the North indirectly confirmed the reinstatement of two other officials.
Among the 80 names on the list were Choe Ryong-Hae, a vice marshal and Kim Jong-Un’s confidante who had reportedly been sent to a farm for re-education, and another dismissed official Won Dong-Yon, a one-time deputy to Kim Yang-Gon.
The reversals of fortune, along with two similar cases earlier this year, have prompted suggestions the leader may be rolling back a purge.
In August Kim Yang-Gon took part in talks to ease tensions with South Korea over a border land mine blast blamed on the North which brought the two sides to the brink of war.
He served three generations of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the North since its founding in 1948 with an iron fist and brooks no dissent.
KCNA hailed him as “the dearest and the most trustworthy comrade-in-arms” of Kim Jong-Un, who will preside over the state funeral on Thursday. His death was a “great loss” for the party and the people, it said, praising him for his “admirable loyalty and competence”.
South Korean Unification Minister Hong Yong-Pyo sent a message of condolences to Pyongyang.
A career diplomat, Kim Yang-Gon played a leading role in arranging the 2007 summit between then-leader Kim Jong-Il and South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun. He was the only North Korean official present at their meeting in Pyongyang.
After the sudden death of Kim Jong-Il in 2011, Kim Yang-Gon was a key confidante to his young son and successor Jong-Un, advising him on cross-border and international relations.
At the talks in August the two sides vowed to try to promote civilian exchanges. But subsequent talks this month ended with little progress in resolving issues such as that of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, and the resumption of cross-border tours to the North’s scenic Mount Kumgang.
Kim Yang-Gon’s death was seen as a blow to efforts at dialogue and reconciliation.
“This is going to deliver negative impacts on inter-Korean relations”, said Professor Yang.
“In light of the North’s nature, I don’t see anyone who can replace him in his role in daring to offer policy ideas and advice to the leader in these fields”, he said.
Professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongguk University said Kim Yang-Gon had an image as a “moderate”. “His death may cause difficulties in keeping up the momentum for dialogue” between the two Koreas, he said.
Some of the North’s most promising party leaders have died in traffic accidents.
Kim Yang-Gon’s predecessor Kim Yong-Sun, who helped arrange the first North-South summit in 2000, perished in what was described as a traffic accident in 2003.
Ri Je-Gang, a top party official, reportedly died in a car crash in 2010 at a time when he was rumoured to be involved in a power struggle with Jang Song-Thaek, the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-Il.
Jang himself survived a car accident in 2006 but was executed in 2013 by his nephew and new leader Kim Jong-Un after being condemned as a “traitor” to the nation.
Yonhap said the partying habits of North Korean elites were also to blame for their disproportionately high rate of fatal traffic accidents, often driving home drunk after exclusive parties.