Kim Yong Chol, born 1946, was on both Kim Jong Un’s trips to China. Gen Kim, a former spymaster often referred to as Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man, has emerged as North Korea’s lead negotiator in recent talks with the US. 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.
In 2016, he took charge of the United Front Department, the civilian intelligence agency which supposedly operates pro-North Korean groups in South Korea and handles inter-Korean affairs. Soon after this appointment, however, he was reportedly sent for “ideological re-education” as punishment for an “overbearing attitude”, according to South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo. He retained his posts despite the punishment, and his rise to prominence in 2018 shows he is now clearly very much in favour and a valued adviser to Kim Jong-un.
Kim Yong Chol Full Biography and Profile
Meet General Kim Yong Chol — no relation to the namesake Supreme Leader — who is officially vice-chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s all-powerful Workers’ Party. But in reality, as former head of the General Reconnaissance Bureau intelligence agency, he is the Stalinist regime’s spy chief and a key strategist. If the U.S. and North Korea are to reach a deal over denuclearization, Kim Yong Chol will have a major part to play.
“Since denuclearization is the core issue of recent inter-Korea and Sino-North Korea summits, Kim Jong Un always has Kim Yong Chol at his side, as he is a savvy operator regarding nuclear and military affairs,” Cheong Seong-chang of the South Korea’s Sejong Institute tells TIME.
Born in 1946, Kim Yong Chol has spent his life in military service. Notably, he took part in high-level inter-Korean talks in the early 1990s, headed the security team for South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s summit in 2000, participated in general level inter-Korean talks in 2006, and took part in Defense Ministerial inter-Korean talks as a general in 2007.
But he is also extremely controversial — even for a top apparatchik within the tyrannical regime. South Korea blames Kim Yong Chol for sinking its navy ship called the Cheonan in 2010, and angry relatives of the 46 sailors killed protested when he came to South Korea as the North’s envoy to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February. He also allegedly had a hand in North Korea’s deadly shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island six months later.
“Execute Kim Yong Chol,” chanted family members of the Cheonan dead at a protest during the Games, brandishing portraits of Kim marked out with a red cross. South Korea’s Liberty Party even released a statement at the time that said Kim Yong Chol deserved “death by beating.”
North Korea has long denied responsibility for sinking the Cheonan, though there are no other plausible explanations.
Kim Yong Chol appeared to take the rancor in his stride, though. When North Korea blocked South Korean journalists from attending a K-Pop performance in Pyongyang last month, it was Kim Yong Chol himself who delivered a rare apology. He reportedly introduced himself as “Hi, I’m Kim Yong Chol, the one you blame for sinking the Cheonan,” before admitting, “It was wrong to hinder the free media coverage and filming.”
Despite that peculiar humility, Kim Yong Chol has a reputation for being cantankerous and snide. During inter-Korea talks in 2007, he rejected an offer from Seoul by saying, “Do you have another briefcase with you? Maybe you have another briefcase of proposals,” reports North Korea Leadership Watch.
That coarse demeanor may explain why he was briefly demoted to Colonel-General and then reinstated as a four-star general in 2012. Kim Yong Chol had a close relationship with Kim Jong Il — former regime leader and father to the current Kim — and other members of the dynasty, including Kim Jong Un’s mother, Ko Yong Hui. He even served a stint as Kim Jong Il’s bodyguard. Appointed director of the Workers’ Party United Front Department in 2016, he now heads a combined civilian intelligence agency and department of inter-Korea relations.
Kim Yong Chol oversaw the expansion of North Korea’s cyber and electronic warfare while at the General Reconnaissance Bureau, including reportedly overseeing the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures over the spoof film The Interview, which lampoons the Kim clan. As tough new U.N. sanctions cut off traditional revenue sources, the regime has put much more effort into lucrative cybercrime. Kim Yong Chol’s burgeoning profile may be linked to his success plugging the gap.
Quick Facts About Kim Yong Chol
- The former spy chief is a trusted adviser to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, playing a pivotal role in preparations for a historic summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
- Kim Yong Chol was previously 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.
- Kim Yong Chol served in the military police in the demilitarized zone on the border of the two Koreas. He was also a bodyguard to Kim Jong Il, the former leader and late father of Kim Jong Un, according to North Korea Leadership Watch, an affiliate of the 38 North think tank.
- Kim Yong Chol is a four-star general, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and director of the United Front Department, which is responsible for inter-Korean relations. Such positions, and his omnipresence before and during inter-Korean summits in April and on Saturday, make him one of the most powerful people in North Korea, South Korean officials say.
- He played a central role in the recent thaw in relations between the North and South Korea, as well as the United States.
- 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 U.S. intelligence to a devastating cyber attack on Sony Pictures in 2014. North Korea denied any involvement in either incident.
- Sent as Kim Jong Un’s envoy to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, Kim Yong Chol told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that Pyongyang was open to talks with Washington, the first indication North Korea was changing course after months of trading threats and insults with the United States.
- He and Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, were the only two officials to join the North Korean leader at the two inter-Korean summits.
- He also coordinated Kim Jong Un’s two meetings with Pompeo in Pyongyang.
- The United States and South Korea blacklisted him for supporting the North’s nuclear and missile programs in 2010 and 2016, respectively. A visit to the United States would indicate a waiver was granted.
- Kim Yong Chol “stormed out of the room” during military talks in 2014 when the South demanded an apology for the 2010 attacks, according to South Korean officials. “He is a tough negotiator and an expert on inter-Korean talks, but it is true that he had been a symbol of hawks rather than harmony and reconciliation until this year,” said Moon Sang-gyun, a former South Korean defense official.
- In 2016, Seoul’s unification ministry said he was briefly sent to a re-education camp for his “overbearing” manner and abuse of power.
Gen Kim’s alleged role in past events led to protests from conservative forces in South Korea before the 2018 Winter Olympics when it emerged that he would visit.
“We absolutely oppose a visit to the South by Kim Yong-chol, the main culprit of the Cheonan’s sinking,” said Kim Sung-tae, then floor leader of the opposition Liberty Korea Party. The party’s statement also said that Kim Yong-chol deserved “death by beating” and called on the government to block the visit.
- Kim Yong Chol Biography and Profile (Japan Times / Time)