Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership
Gen. Kim Yong Chol (Kim Yo’ng-ch’o’l), a member of the DPRK’s military intelligence community for the last three decades, appears to have replaced Kim Yang Gon as Workers’ Party of Korea [WPK] Secretary and Director of the United Front Department [UFD], the primary civilian intelligence agency and policymaking shop for the DPRK’s inter-Korean relations. Kim Yang Gon, passed away in late December 2015 from what DPRK state media reported were injuries from an auto accident. Despite several experienced officials working under Kim at UFD as deputy directors (such as Won Tong Yon) who would have been suitable replacements for Kim Yang Gon, even on an interim basis until the 7th Party Congress in May, it appears Kim Yong Chol has been selected. This corroborates multi-sourced reporting in ROK media from mid-January 2016 that claimed Kim Yong Chol replaced Kim Yang Gon.
This raises the question of whether the auto wreck that killed Kim Yang Gon was really an accident, or if he was violently moved aside by a more hardline faction in the DPRK’s political culture. Kim Yang Gon, after all, was a pragmatist who engineered a number of inter-Korean agreements on behalf of the DPRK, most recently an agreement to suspend hostilities between the two Koreas during August 2015.
The 70-year old Kim Yong Chol was director of the Korean People’s Army [KPA] Reconnaissance General Bureau [RGB] and vice chief of the KPA General Staff. As head of the RGB he was responsible for collection, analysis and operations on the military side of the DPRK intelligence community. General Kim rose to the position at the head of the RGB after a 2009 reform of the DPRK’s intelligence agencies which were migrated and consolidated under his control at RGB. The sole exception was the United Front Department, which remained strictly within party control under Kim Yang Gon. Now as head of UFD, Kim Yong Chol will have a more active role in DPRK policy toward the ROK and his new appointment places him in the line of control over the Kaeso’ng Industrial Complex [KIC], which occupies a parcel of land that used to be under military control. It should be noted that Kim Yong Chol is not an inter-Korean neophyte and has participated in several inter-Korean military interactions; he is also not new to interacting with other foreign government officials, routinely meeting with foreign diplomats and intelligence managers stationed or visiting Pyongyang.
Kim Yong Chol’s appointment raises the question of the current composition, command and control of the North’s intelligence community. There are two ways this has played out (with the caveat we’re talking in a general, “big picture” context): Kim Yong Chol has vacated his position at RGB and gone over to the Central Party, leaving someone else to replace him at the head of RGB; or, with Kim Yong Chol’s migration over to UFD, he has brought with him some of the intelligence agencies that were part of the 2009 consolidation (i.e. the WPK Operations Department, the External Liaison Department and Office #35) and left behind those assets and elements traditionally part of the KPA. If the latter scenario is the case, then this another sign that the WPK (the party) is exerting greater control over the North’s armed forces.
General Kim Yong Chol is a former bodyguard for Kim Jong Il and other members of the Kim Family. After leaving close escort service he held a series of command positions in the former Ministry of People’s Armed Forces [MPAF] Reconnaissance Bureau, eventually becoming director of the bureau. General Kim has been implicated as having led or been involved in the March 2010 sinking of the ROK naval corvette Cheonan, as well as managing units involved in cyberattacks and electronic warfare. General Kim has very good personal ties to Kim Jong Un (Kim Cho’ng-u’n), however he is a controversial figure among some older DPRK elites due to his ambition and reputation as an empire builder.