Kim Yang-gon, a senior North Korean official in charge of the nation’s relations with South Korea, died this week in a car accident, according to the communist nation’s official state news agency.
According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim was 73 and killed in a car accident, though the agency did not specify where the accident occurred or who else, if anyone, was involved. Kim was considered a high-ranking aide to dictator Kim Jong-un and officially the secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party tasked with bilateral diplomacy with South Korea.
KCNA spoke favorably of Kim, which appears to indicate the government does not want readers to believe he was purged from power, or that his “accident” was in any way intentional. BBC notes that the statement described Kim as “a Workers’ Party secretary and member of the party Central Committee Politbureau.”
The Guardian suggests that Kim’s diplomatic efforts may have successfully thwarted an all-out war between the Korean nations in the summer, when North Korean land mines killed two South Korean soldiers, escalating tensions between the nations to near-unprecedented levels. The land mine incident resulted in the two nations exchanging fire and Kim Jong-un ordering soldiers on the border into a “war footing,” though ultimately, tensions reduced at the de-militarized zone. Experts speaking to The Guardian credit Kim Yang-Gon for talking Kim down from war.
Despite enjoying an apparently positive reputation in North Korea, Kim’s death brings with it significant intrigue. For one, his predecessor also died in a mysterious car accident, CNN notes, and car accidents in North Korea are rare. “If you look at the North Korean history, we can see that a surprising large number of their high level North Korean officials have died in car crashes,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, tells CNN.
Another mystery regarding his death is the reappearance of Choe Ryong Hae, the secretary of the North Korea’s Workers’ Party, who has been mysteriously absent for months from North Korean media. Choe appears on the list of officials organizing the state funeral for Kim, though he has not been mentioned in state media since November. Rumors circulated that Choe was mandated to spend time in a North Korean labor camp after an accident at a power plant in Mount Paektu. Others speculated he had simply been purged. Some are taking the reappearance of his name as a sign that Kim Jong-un has turned to “re-education” of officials he distrusts more often than assassination.
Kim Jong-un is suspected of having poisoned his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, in 2014, and is known to have ordered the execution of uncle Jang Song-Thaek in 2013. Unlike the death announcement for Kim this year, KCNA described Jang as “worse than a dog” and “depraved,” claiming his death sentence was a result of his “clapping half-heartedly” during state events.
The KCNA announcement remains the only media announcing Kim’s death. At the Rodong Sinmun, the state newspaper, reports abound of Kim Jong-il’s commitment to fisheries, and among the most popular posts is an opinion piece titled “No One Can Match Tremendous Might of DPRK.” The column boasts, “The inexhaustible mental power displayed by the Korean people this year, nuclear deterrent for self-defence and ever-stronger single-minded unity would have been unthinkable without the outstanding leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”