Hawk is tapped to deal with Seoul, say sources

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Hawk is tapped to deal with Seoul, say sources

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Kim Yong-chol

North Korea reportedly appointed a top military official known for his hawkishness to lead a bureau handling inter-Korean relations, casting clouds over future improvements in South-North relations.

According to several government sources, Gen. Kim Yong-chol, chief of the North’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance, appears to have been chosen as director of the United Front Department (UFD) to fill a post left vacant after director Kim Yang-gon was killed in a car accident last month at the age of 73.

“We have obtained news of Kim’s appointment through human intelligence,” said a government official involved in North Korea policy, who asked for anonymity. The official said the intelligence had high credibility and came from multiple sources. The appointment had not been announced by the North Korean regime as of Monday.

The Yeouido Institute, a policy think tank run by the ruling Saenuri Party, also reported to the party leadership Monday about Kim’s appointment in a report entitled “Kim Yong-chol’s appointment as director of the United Front Department to succeed Kim Yang-gon.”

Gen. Kim, 70, is known as a military hawk who masterminded the North’s torpedo attack against the Cheonan warship in March 2010, killing 46 sailors inside, which Pyongyang denies. He also reportedly directed the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island the following November, which killed two marines and two civilians and was the North’s first attack on South Korean soil since the Korean War (1950-53).

Kim is also allegedly responsible for the planting of land mines inside the demilitarized zone last summer, which left two South Korean patrol guards maimed. The planted landmine prompted the South to resume propaganda broadcasts at the DMZ for the first time in 11 years and sent inter-Korean tensions soaring.

If the veteran military official has indeed been tapped to lead the bureau, analysts say it could effectively mean “an end to dialogue” until South Korea elects a new president and President Park Geun-hye’s single five-year term ends in February 2018.

“We could interpret Kim’s appointment [to head the UFD] as Pyongyang’s declaration that its business with the Park government is now over,” Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University, told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“In the short run, Kim’s appointment, if true, is a very negative sign for inter-Korean ties,” he said. “The General Bureau of Reconnaissance is mainly tasked with plotting and carrying out espionage against the South while the UFD is responsible for seeking communication and cooperation with the South.”

Another North Korea expert agreed on the negative implications of Kim’s appointment. “If Kim Yong-chol is really named to the UFD, it is an indication of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to strain ties with Seoul,” said Kim Young-soo, a professor of political science at Sogang University.

The late Kim Yang-gon was seen as a veteran diplomatic negotiator who displayed flexibility due to his in-depth experience and knowledge of inter-Korean relations and international affairs.

Kim was one of only a handful of North Korean officials who visited South Korea multiple times. The profiles of the two Kims as negotiators could not be more contrasting, analysts say.

Reports of Kim’s appointment came after the two Koreas saw their relations drop to a low in the aftermath of the North’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, putting an end to a brief four-month period of rapprochement. In response to Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test, Seoul resumed psychological warfare and loudspeakers along the border are playing bouncy K-pop songs and announcements critical of the Kim regime that can be heard as far as 24 kilometers (15 miles) into the North.

BY KANG JIN-KYU, KIM HYOUNG-GU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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