Explainer: Who is Kim Yong-chol, the North Korean official heading to US to represent Kim Jong-un?

Kim Yong-chol, a former spy chief, will play a key role in preparations for the US-North Korea summit meeting

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 1:18am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 3:17am

When Kim Yong-chol lands in New York this week, he will become the most senior North Korean envoy to hold talks with American officials on US soil in 18 years.

The former spy chief is a trusted adviser to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and will play a pivotal role in preparations for a summit meeting between him and US President Donald Trump.

US keeps summit with Kim on track after Trump U-turn

In a sign of his importance, Trump announced Kim Yong-chol’s New York trip on Twitter on Tuesday. The North Korean is expected to fly to the United States on Wednesday after speaking with Chinese officials in Beijing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified source.

The White House said that Kim would meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later in the week. It will be the most high-level contact between the two countries in the United States since Jo Myong-rok, a vice-marshal, met President Bill Clinton at the White House in 2000.

Diplomatic heavyweight

Kim Yong-chol, who holds the rank of general, is vice-chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and director of the United Front Department, which is responsible for relations with South Korea. His many positions in party and government make him one of the most powerful people in North Korea, according to the website North Korea Leadership Watch.

He has played a central role in the recent thaw in relations between the North and South Korea, as well as with the United States.

Japanese leader ‘will meet Donald Trump before US-North Korea summit’

He coordinated Kim Jong-un’s two meetings with Pompeo in April and May. He and Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, were the only North Korean officials to attend the historic inter-Korean summit of leaders in April.

Spy under sanctions

Kim Yong-chol previously was chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency, and has spent nearly 30 years as a senior member of the intelligence community.

The United States and South Korea blacklisted him for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programmes in 2010 and 2016, respectively, so a visit to the United States would indicate that a waiver was granted.

Kim Jong-un’s sister to join North Korea’s delegates for peace talks with South Korea

During his tenure as a senior intelligence official, he was accused by South Korea of masterminding deadly attacks on a South Korean navy ship and an island in 2010. He was also linked by US intelligence to a cyberattack on Sony Pictures in 2014 before the release of the film The Interview, a comedy centred on a far-fetched plot to assassinate a North Korean leader.

North Korea denied any involvement in the attacks on the ship and Sony Pictures.

Bodyguard to Kim’s father

Kim Yong-chol served in the military police in the demilitarised zone on the border of the two Koreas. He was also a bodyguard to Kim Jong-il, the former leader and father of Kim Jong-un, according to North Korea Leadership Watch, an affiliate of the 38 North think tank.

Stranger than fiction: how Kim Jong-un had last laugh over Seth Rogen movie

He has been closely linked to Kim Jong-un’s succession and has been seen flanking the leader on several public visits.

Kim Yong-chol is known to be difficult to work with, sarcastic and not sufficiently deferential to his superiors, the North Korea Leadership Watch site said.