Kim Yang-gon, the head of the North’s United Front Department, has become the latest top North Korean official to assume ambient temperature. As head of the UFD, Kim was North Korea’s nearest analogue to the South’s Unification Minister, but he was also responsible for North Korea’s influence and subversion operations inside South Korea. It is one of my ruder habits to point out that the UFD has a rather substantial fifth column at its service in the South. For more on the inner workings of the UFD, the book you must read is “Dear Leader,” by Jang Jin-sung. For more on Kim’s biography, and his rapid rise since the succession of His Porcine Majesty, I’ll refer you to John Grisafi at NK News.
The point being, Kim was a pezzanovante. He (along with Hwang Pyeong-so) negotiated that agreement between the Koreas to fight another day, after the crisis that followed when North planted mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers. In terms of ideology, Michael Madden describes him as “not exactly a moderate, but … a pragmatist,” and worries that his subtraction from the equation might benefit “more hawkish elements.”
Kim’s official cause of death was a car “accident,” if you can believe that. A few people, including Andrei Lankov and Greg Scarlatoiu, seem skeptical. Personally, I have no idea. North Korea’s roads aren’t much better than the rest of its infrastructure. By most accounts, Pyongyang has more traffic now than in previous years, which still isn’t saying much. There are actual, accidental car accidents in Pyongyang. But there is also a very suspicious history:
In 1976, an official said to be a rival to then-president Kim Il Sung died in a car crash. In 2003, a predecessor to Kim Yang Gon died in a traffic accident and in 2010 top official Ri Je Gang also died in a crash.
“North Korea has a long track record of suspicious deaths around high-level officials,” said North Korea expert Andrei Lankov. “Most die either because they are machine-gunned, or they die in car crashes”.
“There are almost no cars and security for high-officials traveling in cars is extremely tight. Given that, one is bound to be skeptical about any such report coming from North Korea.” [Reuters, Jack Kim & James Pearson]
Scarlatoiu notes that senior officials like Kim Yang-gon have drivers for their fancy European sedans. Except, so senior defectors tell Scarlatoiu, when they have to drive themselves to parties — like, say, New Year’s parties — at Kim Jong-il’s house. That’s when the more suspicious accidents tend to happen.
In its 2012 annual report on North Korea, Amnesty International cited “unconfirmed reports that the authorities had either executed by firing squad or killed in staged traffic accidents 30 officials who had participated in inter-Korean talks or supervised bilateral dialogue.”
Only in North Korea would your organizational affiliation dictate your precise cause of death.
Later that same year, a defector claimed he’d been ordered by His Corpulency’s Secret Service to target his equally corpulent (but much nicer) sibling, Jong-nam, for a car not-accident in China. Still unexplained is the 2013 incident in which Kim Jong-un thanked a female traffic cop for saving his life, which caused some to speculate that His Corpulency might also have been the target of a car not-accident.
Our other top story this week is that General Choe Ryong-hae is still not dead. Choe had been variously reported to have been purged and sent to either a farm in South Hamgyeong or a mine in South Pyongan. As of today, he seems to have been un-purged — his name is on the list for Kim Yang-gon’s funeral committee. For those keeping track, this is at least the second time Choe has had a Lazarus-like resurrection.
If you can believe that.
(Update: And after all that, Choe was a no-show for Kim’s funeral. This is all just too weird.)
Grisafi, for whom I have much respect, thinks that the fates of Kim Yang-gon and Choe Ryong-hae mean that “the Kim Jong Un regime appears to have recently shifted away from violent purges by execution of senior officials in favor of milder punishments and reeducation.” But if Kim Yang-gon’s death really was an accident, it means that Choe’s resurrection is the only data point Grisafi has to support this argument. If it wasn’t, a staged car accident isn’t what I’d call “mild” punishment, although it could mean that his parents, children, and wife might be spared relocation to a
gulag peace farm.
I think the data pool is much too thin, and the standard deviation much too high, to identify any trends. In fact, I’m officially prepared to admit that I have no effing idea what is going on in His Corpulency’s Court, except that by all outward appearances, it’s amateur hour with nuclear weapons up there.
Update 2: Via Yonhap:
“This is the big question right now facing Pyongyang watchers,” Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp., said. “Was this an accident or is this a cover up for a purge? Sometimes when leaders are purged, the car accident is used as a way of getting rid of them without branding them a criminal or a traitor.” [….]
“The early indications are that this was an accident,” Gause said. “If, however, we begin to see a major shift away from inter-Korean dialogue toward a more aggressive, brinksmanship or isolationist policy, then we may have to take another look at this ‘accident.'”
“Kim Yang-gon’s death in a car accident might be interpreted as paying the ultimate price for the collapse of the inter-Korean mini-detente following the August agreement,” Bruce Klingner, a senior Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said.
But Klinger also pointed out that prior to his death, there were no indications Kim was distrusted or in danger of being purged. The frequency of Kim accompanying the leader had also increased under Kim Jong-un’s reign as compared with the era of late leader Kim Jong-il, he said.
The expert also noted leader Kim’s expression of sorrow about the loss of Kim.
“The North Korean leader attended the funeral, expressing ‘bitter grief’ and bemoaning the loss of ‘his faithful helper whom nobody can replace,’ suggesting an accidental rather than planned death,” Klingner said. “That said, other North Korean elites may now be more wary of getting into their cars.”