The Future of North-South Relations: The Rise of Kim Yong-chol?

January 19, 2016 7:00 AM

It is hard to draw conclusions about North Korean diplomacy from changes in personnel, but one recent change certainly looks inauspicious: the possible appointment of General Kim Yong-chol to replace the recently deceased Kim Yang-gon. Kim Yang-gon became director of the United Front Department of the Workers' Party in March 2007, the department of the party charged with managing North-South relations. There was little to do during the Lee Myung Bak years, but he was promoted into the Secretariat and the Central Committee (alternate) in 2010. But his status ultimately rested on his personal connections with the family: he was a cousin of Kim Jong Il’s and survived the transition. With Hwang Pyong-so and Choe Ryong-hae, he attended the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in Seoul in 2014 and in August 2015 was tapped to negotiate the August 25 deal in the wake of the land mine incident; he was the point man in announcing the agreement in the North Korean media as well. The attention given to his funeral, including the status of the funeral committee, suggested a confidante whose formal standing did not match his close proximity to the top leadership.

Kim Yong-chol also has personal connections to the leadership, as a tutor of Kim Jong Un at Kim Il Sung University according to Ken Gause’s House of Cards. But his background suggests nothing but trouble for North-South relations. According to Michael Madden at North Korea Leadership Watch, Kim Yong-chol does have experience as a participant in North-South meetings in the 1990s and 2000s. But in contrast to Kim Yang-gon, he did so from a military and intelligence perspective and is typically identified as a hardliner and perhaps even in the extreme. Rising up through positions in the military police and Guard Command he became the first deputy director of the defense ministry’s (MPAF) reconnaissance bureau. In February 2009 he was appointed director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which consolidated a number of intelligence agencies but also had an operational role. In 2010, he assumed a position on the Central Military Commission. After a brief demotion, he was rehabilitated in 2013.

According to Madden’s biography, he advocated for restricting inter-Korean border crossings in 2008 and conducted inspections near Kaesong in 2009 that were part of the wider tensions around the complex in that year (North Korea Economy Watch). Among the list of North Korean actions with which Kim Yong-chol has been associated are the sinking of the Cheonan, the shelling of Yeongpyeong-do, and the tensions on the peninsula in early 2013. At that time, he announced North Korea’s abrogation of the armistice (again), was one of the four generals captured in the infamous picture of Kim Jong Un that included missile trajectories to the United States and held the meeting with foreign ambassadors during the crisis suggesting obliquely that the country could not guarantee their safety. In his role atop the GRB, he has been associated with the Sony hack and more recently South Korean intelligence believes he might have been behind the land mine incident of 2015 (Yonhap coverage of appointment above).

In the aftermath of the fourth test, things could once again get testy in North-South. First up, one of the more curious turnarounds to date: North Korea dropping propaganda leaflets on the South. With the usual caveats about the unknown significance of any given personnel appointment, nothing about this appointment looks good.


Ildo Hwang

This is a South Korean journalist, and one of big fans of this blog.
Though you mentioned "he(Kima Yang-gon) was a cousin of Kim Jong Il's and survived the transition", but I think I've never heard this before and can't track any other information related. Could you please share the source of this sentence, even in the most vague way?
Sorry for bothering.


The reference to Kim Yang-gon as Kim Jong Il's cousin comes from Ken Gause's excellent House of Cards, p. 291.

Ildo Hwang

Thank you so much for your kind answer.
I have to check Ken Gause's book.

I guess that fact can be significant to recent situation of NK power elites, especially about the 'intentional accident' theory. If Kim Yang-gon was really KJI's cousin, maybe no one can kill him except KJU himself. Then it should be rational to think KYG's death was nothing but the pure traffic accident. Well, quite interesting.

Peter Hayes

The blog is correct to highlight the role of Kim Yong Chol. That he is a hardliner, there can be no doubt. He is well known to the South. For example, he was Lim Dong Won's interlocutor in the North-South Military Commission talks. I met with him in 1991 for about 4 hours. I found he had the most nuanced and subtle understanding of American strategic, military, and nuclear policy of any Korean and far more informed about US policy and posture than most American policymakers for whom Korea was and is a sideshow. His historical memory and grasp of details were unparalleled. I suggest he is a more complex player than the blog portrays, and that with his hard line credentials, he cannot be challenged. He's exactly the kind of advisor to Kim Jong Un that we need most to engage. Putting him under personal sanctions may make this difficult for the United States unless the meeting is in Pypngyang, however. My sense is that he had James Clapper for dessert when he had dinner with Clapper in Pyongyang. Importantly, he has the historical memory of key historical events and choices that Kim Jong Un needs to make well-informed decisions, as did Kim Yong Sun for Kim Jong Il. In this sense, Kim has an advantage over Obama in that no-one advising the President has this level of historical depth, excellent as some of them may be. The individuals with experience matching Kim Yong Chol are deeply buried in DOD and State, were hunted out by John Bolton's pitbulls, or have since retired. The ROK has counterpoints to Kim with similar credentials and depth but none of these people advise the current Blue House. Kim Yong Chol may be more of an essential part of a solution to inter-Korean affairs and the nuclear issue and not only part of the problem than this blog suggests.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff