Kim Yong Chol, A Biography

Note: a version of this biography was first published on the 38 North affiliate blog, North Korean Leadership Watch.

Kim Yong Chol pictured behind US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Jong Un in May 2018. (Source: KCNA)

Kim Yong Chol has traveled to the United States where he will meet with senior US government officials in New York City. Kim is the most powerful, senior DPRK official to visit the US since Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok’s 2000 visit to Washington, DC. Here are some key points to know about the 72-year-old Kim.

  • Kim is currently a Vice Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee with the portfolio for South Korean affairs. He is also a member of the State Affairs Commission, the North Korean government’s supreme power and policymaking organization, a member of the WPK Political Bureau and a member of the WPK Central Military Commission.
  • Kim’s “day job” in the DPRK system is Director of the WPK United Front Department [UFD]. In that position, he is the lead official for the Party’s “Third Office Complex,” a campus of civilian intelligence departments and research institutes focused on the North’s relationship with South Korea.
  • Like his predecessor (who was killed in a December 2015 traffic accident), Kim Yong Chol’s portfolio transcends the DPRK’s relationship with South Korea and has included the North’s relationship and interactions with China and, now, the United States.
  • When Kim was appointed to head UFD he brought with him one of his principal deputies, Major-General Ri Son Gwon, who is currently the Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, the North’s lead external organization for relations with the South.
  • From 2009 to 2016, Kim was the director of the DPRK’s Reconnaissance General Bureau [RGB] which is equivalent to the US Directorate of National Intelligence. The RGB is involved in the collection and analysis of military intelligence on South Korea.
  • RGB is also involved in some special activities and has been implicated in numerous cyberwarfare activities targeting South Korean government and financial institutions. It has also been implicated in the March 2010 explosion of the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan.
  • Kim Yong Chol has been a leading military and civilian intelligence manager since the 1980s, with his first major position being deputy director of the former Reconnaissance Bureau under the North’s defense ministry, the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces.
  • Kim has two decades of experience as a DPRK interlocutor with South Korean officials; he has taken part in numerous inter-Korean interactions going back to 1991.
  • During the 1960s and 1970s, Kim served as a close security escort (bodyguard) for the Kim Family.
  • As far as senior DPRK elites go, Kim Yong Chol is part of a cohort of “self-made men” (DPRK Premier Pak Pong Ju is another example of this), which is to say he came to the attention of top leadership figures by hard work and accomplishment and not through patronage connections.
  • Kim is highly intelligent and speak several languages fluently.
  • Kim has also exhibited a dark sense of humor, which has not always been understood by his foreign counterparts, for instance, at a South Korean concert in 2018, Kim introduced himself saying “Hi. I’m the man you blame for sinking the Cheonan.” At another interaction he rejected Seoul’s proposals and told his South Korean interlocutor, “do you have another briefcase? Surely you have another briefcase of proposals with you.”
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