With all recent movement on sanctions legislation in the House and Senate, I’ve skimmed over the developments in North Korean Kremlinology, reports about which often read like the dossiers in a lost, bad-acid fueled manuscript for a “High Castle” sequel.
If you believe that personnel is policy, however, Kim Jong-un’s choice of a replacement for Kim Yang-gon, who ran Pyongyang’s so-called United Front Department until he died in a car-maybe-not-accident recently, is a dark omen about Kim Jong-un’s policy instincts. The UFD not only handles diplomatic relations with Seoul, but also Pyongyang’s propaganda and influence operations in South Korea, and its substantial cadre of sympathizers and spies there.
Despite his job description, some scholars attributed pragmatic views to the late Kim Yang-gon. By contrast, the choice of General Kim Yong-chol as his replacement set off alarm bells among Korea watchers, who describe him as a “hard-liner” or a “hawk.”
If you believe that inter-Korean relations are a real thing, that’s bad enough:
“We could interpret Kim’s appointment [to head the UFD] as Pyongyang’s declaration that its business with the Park government is now over,” Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“In the short run, Kim’s appointment, if true, is a very negative sign for inter-Korean ties,” he said. “The General Bureau of Reconnaissance is mainly tasked with plotting and carrying out espionage against the South while the UFD is responsible for seeking communication and cooperation with the South.”
Another North Korea expert agreed on the negative implications of Kim’s appointment. “If Kim Yong-chol is really named to the UFD, it is an indication of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to strain ties with Seoul,” said Kim Young-soo, a professor of political science at Sogang University. [Joongang Ilbo]
The blunt truth is much worse. Kim Yong-chol is the prime suspect in North Korea’s 2014 cyberattack on Sony pictures, its cyberterrorist threats against American movie theaters, its 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the 2015 land mine attack against South Korean soldiers, and a whole series of attempted and perfected assassinations in South Korea and China.
The blunt truth is, Kim Yong-chol is a straight-up terrorist. That’s why he featured so prominently in “Arsenal of Terror,” my report last year documenting North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism. There’s even a picture of him on page 62. Here’s one reason why:
In April 2010, South Korean authorities announced that they had arrested two North Korean agents who posed as defectors while plotting to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop. Following his 1997 defection, Hwang had become a fierce critic of the North Korean regime, and received multiple death threats.325
In June of 2010, Major Kim Myong-ho and Major Dong Myong-gwan326 of the RGB pled guilty to the assassination plot in a South Korean court.327 The court sentenced each of the defendants to ten years in prison. The defendants told prosecutors that Lt. Gen. Kim Yong-chol, the head of the RGB, personally assigned them to the assassination mission in November of 2009.
On October 10, 2010, just six months after the failure of the assassination plot, Hwang Jang-yop died, apparently of natural causes, at the age of 87. Ten days later, South Korea announced that it had arrested another North Korean agent, Ri Dong-sam, who was also plotting to murder Hwang. Police denied the existence of any connection between that arrest and Hwang’s death.329 [Arsenal of Terror, pp. 61-62]
Kim Yong-chol now becomes the most important North Korean official to have his assets blocked by the U.S. Treasury Department, which could get interesting if he travels abroad or attempts to make dollar payments to hotels or airlines. You can argue whether O Kuk-Ryol (also blocked) is a semi-retired elder statesman or a guy with real control over North Korea’s nukes and counterfeiting, but Kim Yong-chol has clearly reached the top ranks.
To further complicate matters, Michael Madden’s profile adds the ominous details that Kim Yong-chol used to report to O Kuk-ryol, but that “[A]ccording to several sources, Gen. Kim has been difficult for his superiors to manage.”
Consider not only who has risen under Kim Jong-un’s reign, but also who has fallen. Until his 2013 purge, Jang Song-Thaek was often seen as Kim’s regent and adult supervision. Scholars tended to emphasize his relative pragmatism, and his control over Pyongyang’s trade networks inside China, perhaps in the implicit hope (of which I’m a skeptic) that associates trade with reform and moderation. Less often mentioned was that Jang was also in charge of the North Korea’s most feared internal security service and its gulags.
Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol, who was reportedly stood before a battery of anti-aircraft guns and vaporized — I use the term in the literal, rather than the Orwellian sense — may not have qualified as a “moderate” in North Korean terms, but he was at least presentable enough to send to Russia to meet with Putin.
In the process, moderates have totally lost out in factional struggles inside North Korea. The latest victim was Kim Yang-gon, in charge of dealings with South Korea. His death last month in a motor vehicle “accident” was the latest in a series of similar misfortunes that have befallen those whose views did not conform with the hardliners. He had visited Beijing several times and had joined North Korea’s second-ranking leader, Hwang Pyong-so, in talks with the South Koreans in Panmunjom for resolving the August mini-crisis on the DMZ. [Don Kirk, Korea Times]
Of course, moderates in North Korea are like beachfront property in North Dakota — a category that requires a relativistic and expansive definition. Still, the promotion of a stone-cold terrorist to the top ranks of Kim Jong-un’s inner circle says much about how Kim Jong-un sees the world around him, and whether he’s the Swiss-educated reformer we’ve been waiting for.
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Photo credit: KCNA, via North Korea Leadership Watch