A senior North Korean ruling party official and a top aide to leader Kim Jong Un has died in a car accident, the state news agency reported on Wednesday, the latest dramatic demise in the close circle of deputies to the country’s leader.
Kim Yang Gon, who was a secretary of the Workers’ Party and the head of its United Front Department, the unit that handles the North’s ties with South Korea, was Kim Jong Un’s “closest comrade, a solid revolutionary partner”, KCNA said.
Kim was part of a high-level delegation that held talks in August after the rival states exchanged artillery fire, raising tensions to one of its highest points in recent years.
Those talks produced an agreement that ended the standoff and for the two sides to reopen dialogue to improve ties.
Kim had grown visibly closer to Kim Jong Un recently, appearing alongside the young leader at various farm and factory inspections and diplomatic meetings.
He was an experienced adviser with a broad understanding of foreign affairs, according to Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership.
“With regard to South Korean policy, Kim Yang Gon had a very good social network and was a good interlocutor for the North with the South.”
South Korea expressed condolences in a message from its Unification Minister sent through the Panmunjom truce village on the militarised border, an official said.
Kim Jong Un has dismissed a string of top aides since he took over when his father died suddenly in 2011.
In 2013, he purged and executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was once considered the second most powerful man in the country, for “anti-revolutionary crimes.”
KCNA said Kim died on Tuesday in an automobile accident at the age of 73. It gave no details of the accident.
Impoverished North Korea’s road network is badly maintained and car ownership is rare, yet several high-level officials have died in traffic accidents over the years.
In 1976, an official said to rival to then-president Kim Il Sung died in a car crash. In 2003, a predecessor to Kim Yang Gon died in a traffic accident and in 2010 top official Ri Je Gang also died in a car crash.
“North Korea has a long track record of suspicious deaths around high-level officials,” said North Korea expert Andrei Lankov. “Most die either because they are machine-gunned, or they die in car crashes”.
“There are almost no cars and security for high-officials travelling in cars is extremely tight. Given that, one is bound to be sceptical about any such report coming from North Korea.”