AS preparations for the on-again-off-again summit between North Korea and the United States continue, Pyongyang has given a strong indication of how seriously they are taking the talks by their choice of envoy to America.
Kim Yong Chol became the most senior North Korean official to visit the US in 18 years on Wednesday when he met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York.
The 72-year-old is known for his hardline approach and has earned himself a formidable and dark reputation over his more than 30 years of service to the Kim regime.
Former chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a top North Korean military intelligence agency, Kim is no stranger to controversy and political intrigue. He is believed to be behind the 2014 cyberattack on Sony pictures and the sinking of a South Korea navy ship, Cheonan, that ultimately killed 46 sailors in 2010 and positioned Kim as a hated figure in South Korea.
As director of the United Front Department, which is responsible for inter-Korean relations, this attack, along with his support of Pyonyang’s missile and nuclear programmes, has earned him a reputation for division rather than unity.
“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,” Moon Sang-gyun, a former South Korean defence official, told Reuters.
Kim’s propensity for dark jokes and sarcastic sense of humour hasn’t earned him many friends in Seoul.
According to the Korea-analysis website 38 North, Kim introduced himself to a crowd at a South Korean concert in 2018 by saying, “Hi, I’m the man you blame for sinking the Cheonan.”
One biography from North Korea Leadership Watch describes him as “difficult to work with” and known to exhibit “snark” in negotiations, which has a tendency to be ill-received by his South Korean counterparts.
In one diplomatic interaction, Kim rejected South Korea’s proposals and asked: “Do you have another briefcase with you? Maybe you have another briefcase of proposals.”
Despite – or possibly because of this – Kim has secured his position as the right-hand man of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and can be seen flanking the 33-year-old dictator on many public visits.
But it hasn’t been all plain sailing for this former bodyguard of Kim Jong Il. In 2015, he was demoted to a three-star general after dozing off during a meeting. He was also briefly sent to a re-education camp for his “overbearing” manner and abuse of power, according to Seoul’s unification ministry.
Yun Sun, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center, told Business Insider that, given Kim’s reputation as a tough negotiator, his presence in New York suggests North Korea is “dedicated to the summit and negotiation this time.”