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(5th LD) N. Korea's senior official on S. Korea dies

2015/12/30 16:04

(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 14, 18-20)

SEOUL, Dec. 30 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's top party official handling inter-Korean affairs has died in a traffic accident, Pyongyang's state media said Wednesday. He was 73.

Kim Yang-gon, the head of the United Front Department at the ruling Workers' Party, died in car accident at 6:15 a.m. Tuesday, according to the North's Korean Central News Agency.

The KCNA called Kim "the closest comrade-in-arms" of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, saying that North Korea will hold a state funeral for Kim on Thursday, to be headed by the North's leader.

Kim Yang-gon was one of the two ranking North Korean officials who attended the rare inter-Korean high-level talks in August following heightened tensions sparked by a land mine blast near the inter-Korean border blamed on North Korea.

The two Koreas reached a rare deal on Aug. 25 to defuse military tensions and make efforts to promote inter-Korean civilian exchanges.

But inter-Korean ties have remained strained since the two sides ended their high-level talks on Dec. 12 without producing any agreements.

South Korea's government said it offered condolences over Kim's death earlier in the day in the name of Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo.

"The government expressed condolences over the death of Kim who contributed to a meaningful agreement at the August talks," Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman, told a regular press briefing.

Jeong refrained from commenting on the immediate impact of his death on inter-Korean affairs, adding that a closer watch is needed.

Analysts said that Seoul-Pyongyang ties may continue to be strained in the short term due to the death of Kim, a dialogue-seeking figure.

"Kim's unexpected death is feared to lead to the prolonged suspension of inter-Korean talks," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute. "Given that the high-level talks fell apart in December, there is a chance that Seoul-Pyongyang ties may be further strained."

   Kim had mainly dealt with inter-Korean affairs since the regime of Kim Jong-il, the father of the North's current leader, who died in late 2011.

In 2007, Kim was named the head of the party's United Front Department, which manages Pyongyang's relations with Seoul. He also contributed to creating an inter-Korean summit held between Kim Jong-il and then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in October of that year.

Kim Yang-gon, North Korea's party secretary handling inter-Korean affairs, is reported to have been killed in a car accident on Dec. 29, 2015. (Yonhap file photo) Kim Yang-gon, North Korea's party secretary handling inter-Korean affairs, is reported to have been killed in a car accident on Dec. 29, 2015. (Yonhap file photo)

Kim was also among three powerful North Korean officials who made a surprise visit to South Korea in October 2014 to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games.

Since Kang Sok-ju, a secretary handling international relations for the North's ruling party, remains ill, Kim was known as effectively doubling up with Kang's jobs at the party.

North Korea announced a list of members for the funeral committee for Kim, including Choe Ryong-hae, a senior secretary of the ruling party and a key aide to the North's leader.

In November, Choe was sent to a rural farm as punishment for his mishandling of a newly built hydroelectric power plant project. The inclusion of his name on the list may indicate that Choe has been reinstated.

Choe's disappearance from the public eye had spawned speculation over his being purged as the North's leader has strengthened the so-called reign of terror by executing senior officials.

"It could be an indication that the North's leader needs to reestablish some stability given Kim's death," said Ken Gause, a senior analyst on North Korea at CNA Corp. in Washington. "We will have to wait and see whether he makes a complete comeback or a temporary one."

   The Unification Ministry declined to comment on Choe's status.

Despite the troubling news, North Korea has not shown any abnormal signs on the military front, a military official said.

"The country has freshly entered the winter training season, but the training pattern is the same as those of previous years," the official said. "No abnormal signs have been detected lately among North Korean troops."