North Korea’s top official in charge of relations with South Korea has died in a traffic accident, state media has announced.
Kim Yang-gon, head of the United Front Department at the ruling Workers’ Party, died on Tuesday morning. He was 73. A state funeral will be held today for him but no further details have been given about how he died.
While North Korea’s road conditions are poor, the lack of detail has fed speculation in South Korean media that Mr Kim’s death was suspicious, though South Korean officials declined to comment. Similar speculation arose in past years following reported traffic deaths of high-level North Korean officials.
Before his death, there had been no signs that Mr Kim was engaged in any major factional feuding with other officials.
He was among officials who most frequently accompanied Kim Jong-un during his inspection visits to army units and factories, a strong indication that he was one of the leader’s trusted aides.
Yesterday’s KCNA dispatch described him as the North Korean leader’s “closest comrade-in-arms and steadfast revolutionary comrade” who had made “dedicated” efforts to push for unification with South Korea.
Analysts in Seoul say strained ties between the rival Koreas could continue following the unexpected death of Mr Kim, who had long handled relations with South Korea. KCNA did not say who would replace him. Earlier this month, the rival Koreas ended rare high-level talks without any agreement.
“I worry that we cannot avoid long suspension of a dialogue between South and North Korea [following Mr Kim’s death],” said Cheong Seong-chang, at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
In August, Kim Yang-gon attended marathon talks at the Korean border that defused a military standoff triggered by land-mine explosions blamed on Pyongyang that maimed two South Korean soldiers. The two Koreas subsequently resumed their first reunions of families separated by war since early 2014, but hopes of improved ties subsided after this month’s inter-Korean talks failed to reach any breakthrough.
South Korea’s unification minister Hong Yong-pyo sent condolences, according to Mr Hong’s ministry. South Korea has previously offered similar condolences when senior North Korean officials died.
Kim Yang-gon visited South Korea in 2009 to pay his respects to late President Kim Dae-jung, who held the first inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong-il in 2000. He was believed to have played a key role in arranging a second summit in 2007.
Most rapprochement agreements signed after the two summit talks remain stalled or have never been implemented after animosities flared again between the rivals.
The Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
A list of people forming Kim Yang-gon’s funeral committee includes Choe Ryong-hae, another close associate of Kim Jong-un who South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said last month was banished to a rural collective farm for re-education, indicating a fall from favour.
The spy agency, which has a mixed record on tracking North Korea, said it was trying to check details regarding developments about Mr Choe.