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Asia-Pacific

Response to North Korean official's death suggests change in leadership style

media North Korean diplomat Kim Yang-gon, close to leader Kim Jong-un, died in a car crash on 29 Decembre 2015. Reuters/Han Jae-ho

In North Korea, a senior official close to leader Kim Jong-un has died in a car crash in Pyongyang, state media said Wednesday. Officially, veteran politician Kim Yang-gon’s death is being treated as an accident, and although a recent series of deaths of senior officials is fuelling speculation of a political elimination, this particular incident does not quite fit the mould.

Kim Yang-gon was involved in North Korean politics for about thirty years, initially as an advisor to former leader Kim Jong-il and more recently as a senior aide growing ever closer to current leader Kim Jong-un.

As director of the ruling party’s United Front Department, the 73-year-old civil servant oversaw the country’s relations with South Korea.

“He was North Korea’s point man on South Korea,” says Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University. “He’d been in that position ever since the era of the so-called Sunshine Policy, when relations were much better between South and North Korea. So his loss will be quite a blow.”

Most recently, Kim participated in talks in August to cool tensions after an exchange of artillery fire near the two countries’ borders, and his death could mark a setback in improving North-South relations.

“It at very least opens up a vacuum in terms of the decision-making process in the north,” says John Nilsson-Wright, head of the Asia programme with Chatham House in London. “If this safe pair of hands is no longer able to negotiate with South Korea, there is some speculation this may give more space to more hard-line voices in the North to have influence over the leadership.”

Officially, Kim’s death is being treated as an accident, but a history of mysterious car accidents taking the lives of former senior officials – including a predecessor to Kim Yang-gon in 2003 and top official Ri Je-gang in 2010 – can only fuel speculation there is more to this incident that meets the eye.

Still, analysts familiar with the country say there would be little way to determine suspicions surrounding the incident.

“The questions would be who wanted him out and what the issues are, and it would be rather hard to say,” says Foster-Carter. “Kim Yang-gon was not known for having a particular position on what he did. He’s not identified as someone who actively wants better relations with South Korea.”

The incident also does not follow the pattern of forceful removals from power carried out under leader Kim Jong-un, who has shown little restraint when it comes to holding brutal public executions of perceived threats in the senior command since coming to power in 2011.

These notably include the executions of his uncle Jang Song-thaek for alleged “anti-revolutionary crimes” in 2013, as well as defence minister Hyon Yong-choi in May of this year.

In contrast to these cases, Kim Yang-gon will be given a state funeral, and authorities have called him the “closest comrade” and a “solid revolutionary partner” of Kim Jong-un.

John Nilsson-Wright says these facts not only suggest it was a genuine car accident, but also shows Kim Jong-un’s whole leadership style is evolving.

“The list of people attending the funeral is Choe Ryong-hae, who two months ago disappeared from view,” Nilsson-Wright says. “The fact that he is back on that list is an indication he is perhaps about to be rehabilitated.

“This tells us a little about the changing nature of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, that his leadership is secure and that he’s confident about bringing back people who have failed in the past."

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