By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (Yonhap) — A major shift in North Korea’s policy toward South Korea could suggest that Pyongyang’s top negotiator with Seoul, Kim Yang-gon, could have died by causes other than a car crash, a U.S. expert said Thursday.
The North announced Wednesday that the 73-year-old Kim died in a traffic accident, a cause that immediately raised doubts as some other top officials have died similar deaths in a nation known for scant traffic, including the 2003 death of Kim Yong-sun, who was also in charge of inter-Korean relations.
“This is the big question right now facing Pyongyang watchers,” Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp., said. “Was this an accident or is this a cover up for a purge? Sometimes when leaders are purged, the car accident is used as a way of getting rid of them without branding them a criminal or a traitor.”
Kim was given a state funeral, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has become notorious for purging top aides, including the brutal execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, has offered “profound” condolences over Kim’s death, according to Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency.
Kim visited Kim’s mortuary Wednesday and could hardly “repress his bitter grief” for long, KCNA said. The leader was also quoted as calling the late aide “the closest comrade-in-arms” and his death a “great loss” to the country.
“The early indications are that this was an accident,” Gause said. “If, however, we begin to see a major shift away from inter-Korean dialogue toward a more aggressive, brinksmanship or isolationist policy, then we may have to take another look at this ‘accident.'”
Kim 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. The two sides held follow-up high-level talks earlier this month to talk about the reconciliation project, but the negotiations broke off without any agreement.
“Kim Yang-gon’s death in a car accident might be interpreted as paying the ultimate price for the collapse of the inter-Korean mini-detente following the August agreement,” Bruce Klingner, a senior Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said.
But Klinger also pointed out that prior to his death, there were no indications Kim was distrusted or in danger of being purged. The frequency of Kim accompanying the leader had also increased under Kim Jong-un’s reign as compared with the era of late leader Kim Jong-il, he said.
The expert also noted leader Kim’s expression of sorrow about the loss of Kim.
“The North Korean leader attended the funeral, expressing ‘bitter grief’ and bemoaning the loss of ‘his faithful helper whom nobody can replace,’ suggesting an accidental rather than planned death,” Klingner said. “That said, other North Korean elites may now be more wary of getting into their cars.”