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[Newsmaker] Kim Yong-chol, a man of mixed past in inter-Korean relations

With Kim Yong-chol set to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York, expectations are rising that the conclusion of the talks on arranging a US-North Korea summit is in sight.

The role Kim is playing in inter-Korean and Pyongyang-Washington talks in recent months is in stark contrast to the role he has played in the past.

Kim, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers’ Party, has been central to the inter-Korean developments of recent months. 

Pyongyang was represented by Kim at the closing ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, and he was present at both inter-Korean summits of this year. 

Kim Yong-chol (left) (Yonhap)
Kim Yong-chol (left) (Yonhap)

Kim was part of a large delegation at the April 27 meeting, while he was the only North Korean official who accompanied Kim Jong-un at the second meeting on Saturday.

According to Seoul’s presidential office, Kim Yong-chol was North Korea’s point-man in arranging the second summit, communicating with his South Korean counterpart National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon. The 72-year-old is also reported to have been the man behind arranging Pompeo’s two visits to Pyongyang.

The second meeting between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is considered to have been critical in keeping inter-Korean talks alive.

Before the meeting, North Korea had cancelled high-level talks hours before it was scheduled to start, and had reverted to criticizing Seoul and Washington.

Prior to the beginning of this year, however, Kim’s role in inter-Korean relations had largely been negative. Before he was promoted to the vice chairman’s post and named the chief of the United Front Department, Kim served as the director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

While the United Front Department deals with South Korea-related matters, the Reconnaissance General Bureau is thought to be Pyongyang’s main organ for plotting attacks against the South.

While he was in charge, the Reconnaissance General Bureau is thought to have organized the torpedo attack on the South Korean Navy ship Cheonan, and a number of cyberattacks on South Korean companies and government entities.

Due to Kim’s alleged role in the Cheonan attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, the Moon Jae-in administration faced fierce criticism from the conservatives for allowing him to attend the PyeongChang games.

Kim has also played an extensive part in inter-Korean negotiations over his long career, having been directly or indirectly involved in talks for nearly three decades.

In 1989, Kim was the chief delegate to the preliminary meeting for the high-level inter-Korean talks. Kim also represented North Korea in the 2006 military talks, and was assessed by a then-South Korean government official as being an expert negotiator.

By Choi He-suk (