A high-ranking North Korean official in charge of relations with South Korea has died in a traffic accident, North Korea’s state media said on Wednesday, casting doubts over the prospects of inter-Korean relations.
Kim Yang-gon, head of the United Front Department at the ruling Workers’ Party, died on Tuesday morning at the age of 73, the KCNA news agency said. However, the agency did not provide details of the accident.
Mr Kim has been one of the most prominent aides to North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, frequently seen at the young leader’s side at diplomatic meetings and his visit to various farms and factories. The KCNA described the late Kim as the leader’s “closest comrade-in-arms and steadfast revolutionary comrade” who had made “dedicated” efforts to push for unification with South Korea.
The agency added that the death of Mr Kim was a “huge loss” for the North Korean leader, who will lead a funeral committee for the late Kim. Analysts said the death of the veteran policymaker on South Korea could have a chilling effect on cross-border dealings, as Pyongyang has yet to announce who will replace Mr Kim.
“His death could suspend inter-Korean dialogues for an extended period,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute. “The inter-Korean relations could be further strained by this.”
Mr Kim had long handled relations with South Korea. He headed North Korea’s delegation in August for marathon talks with South Korea’s top security officials as military tensions escalated over landmine explosions near the border that injured two South Korean soldiers. The talks helped ease tensions and led to a rare reunion in October of separated families.
He led a North Korean delegation that made a surprise visit last year to Seoul for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games. He also attended the funeral of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in Seoul in 2009. The two Koreas held another meeting of high-ranking officials earlier this month but it did not lead to any progress in relations.
There is no way to verify North Korea’s claim of the car accident but fatal past accidents involving senior North Korean officials have raised speculation of power struggles among the ruling elites within the secretive communist state. Although North Korea’s roads are in poor condition, traffic accidents are rare as there are few cars in the impoverished state.
The North Korean leader has undertaken the most sweeping purge of top officials since he took power in December 2011. Two years ago, he executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, once the country’s second most powerful man and the main go-between with Beijing, for a raft of offences including plotting a coup. In May, Seoul’s spy agency said North Korea’s defence minister Hyon Yong-chol had been executed by anti-aircraft fire.
Among the members of the state funeral committee for Mr Kim was Choe Ryong-hae, a key aide to the North Korean leader. The 65-year-old secretary for the ruling workers’ party was believed to have been exiled to a rural farm for “revolutionary education”, but Mr Cheong of the Sejong Institute said Mr Choe appeared to have been reinstated.
Get alerts on North Korea when a new story is published