Why is Kim Yong Chol Still Pyongyang’s Choice for US-DPRK Relations?

From left to right: Kim Yong Chol, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and US Special Representative to North Korea Stephen Biegun at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, DC. Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Kim Yong Chol has arrived in Washington to meet with Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump. Ever since North Korea’s shift to diplomatic rapprochement with South Korea and the United States in 2018, Kim Yong Chol has been one of the primary officials to represent Pyongyang. He is to proffer Kim Jong Un’s official invitation to Trump for a second summit. This will be Kim’s second trip to DC in under a year and the first time a North Korean has stayed in DC overnight since Jo Myong Rok’s visit in 2000. Kim visited the United States ahead of the first US-DPRK summit in May 2018 and had lead roles in both Secretary Pompeo’s earlier trips to Pyongyang in July and October.

While tolerated at first, there is a growing consensus in the United States that Kim Yong Chol’s continued role in US-DPRK relations is counterproductive. His US trip resulted in getting the first summit back on after a brief cancellation, but his handling of US-DPRK relations has been inconsistent. His July meeting with Pompeo did not go well—Pompeo was on the ground in North Korea for approximately 30 hours and his talks with Kim Yong Chol were reported to be uncomfortable and tense. Pompeo was not given an audience with Kim Jong Un and after leaving Pyongyang, North Korea chastised the US for making “gangster-like demands.” The US side was thrown off by this reception so soon after the positive experience of the Singapore Summit. Pompeo’s October trip was salvaged because he was able to meet with Kim Jong Un directly. During that round of meetings, Kim Yong Chol only attended the introductions and the post-meeting dinner. Instead, Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, acted as Kim Jong Un’s deputy for the substantive meeting with Pompeo. At that meeting, Kim Jong Un reportedly apologized to Pompeo for not having met him in July. Combined with Kim’s exclusion from the substantive parts of the engagement, Kim Jong Un may have been admonishing his “right hand man” and contemplating a change of representative.

The United States would certainly much rather deal with a different North Korean at this point. The inclusion of Kim Yong Chol in US-DPRK relations has always been a somewhat polarizing choice. He is the director of the United Front Department (UFD), which is the department of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea that handles policy and relations with South Korea (and to an extent, China), though previous UFD directors have waded into North Korea’s US policy. He has a long history of participating in inter-Korean military negotiations and has been involved in US relations before, but he is not a trained diplomat and there are other, much more seasoned diplomatic professionals in North Korea’s leadership circles, such as Director of the International Affairs Department Ri Su Yong, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, who would be appropriate and perhaps more amenable to the United States.

In addition to his credentials, Kim Yong Chol has long been a controversial character. He is the notorious North Korean “spymaster”—a reputation that he seems to embrace. His former role as head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) links him to planning and execution of the deadly attack on the ROK naval vessel, Cheonan, in 2010, the 2014 Sony cyber hack, and to North Korea’s cyber capabilities, which have stolen millions of dollars from global financial institutions and harassed the ROK government. He is on sanctions lists in both the United States and South Korea.

And yet, Kim Yong Chol is back in Washington. Why is he still taking a prominent role in engaging with the United States? What purpose does Kim Jong Un have for continuing to include Kim Yong Chol in sensitive negotiations, especially since his presence may antagonize more than not? The simple answer may be that Kim Jong Un still sees value in putting him forward to carry his message to the United States. It is important to understand what Kim Yong Chol does for Kim Jong Un.

Kim Yong Chol’s rank in leadership circles and proximity to Kim Jong Un clearly give him some leeway for diplomatic missteps. Kim Yong Chol’s links to the Kim family go back several decades to when he served as a bodyguard for the Kim family. His ascent in North Korean leadership echelons has been closely tied to Kim Jong Un’s consolidation of power. His personal ties to Kim Jong Un go back to the early 2000s, when he oversaw Kim Jong Un’s military education at Kim Il Sung University.[1] The Cheonan attack and Kim Jong Un’s association with the RGB were tied to securing military support for Kim’s succession of his father. He has risen to the status of full-member of the Political Bureau of the Workers’ Party (Politburo) and the Central Military Commission, as well as a member of the State Affairs Commission, the North Korean government’s supreme power and policymaking organization formed by Kim Jong Un in 2016. He has been a consistent presence in Kim’s inner circle of interlocutors who have direct access to Kim Jong Un and have the ability to contribute to his decision-making.

In foreign relations, Kim Yong Chol is a clear embodiment of North Korea’s hardline; his presence and his demeanor are stark reminders of the not-so-distant unpleasant state of relations with North Korea and of the actions the country can take to disrupt regional and international security. Kim Jong Un has used Kim Yong Chol’s reputation to underscore his diplomatic messaging to unambiguous effect. In inter-Korean relations, Kim Yong Chol is often “paired” with Kim Yo Jong. At the 2018 Olympics, Kim Yo Jong attended the opening ceremonies and was charming and interacted comfortably with South Korean officials. By contrast, Kim Yong Chol attended the closing ceremonies and introduced himself to journalists saying: “Hi. I’m the man you blame for sinking the Cheonan.” At subsequent inter-Korean summits, Kim Jong Un has sat with Kim Yo Jong to one side of him, and Kim Yong Chol on the other. The juxtaposition seems to represent his South Korean counterparts’ choice: we can do this the easy way, or the hard way.

Kim Jong Un is using the same signaling approach in his engagement with the United States. When Kim Jong Un expressed his desire for a “new relationship” with the United States and trust-building measures, one would have thought the lead for US-DPRK relations would have gone to an official like Ri Su Yong or Ri Yong Ho. By using Kim Yong Chol, particularly in the early stages of US-DPRK engagement, Kim Jong Un was likely indicating to the United States that while North Korea was willing to take a softer approach and negotiate, it was still willing to show its teeth.

But Kim also fills an important internal requirement for Kim Jong Un on the domestic front. Any agreement or action that Kim Jong Un makes with regard to the United States will need to be marketed and sold to Pyongyang’s political elite, which includes Party cadres, state officials and, most importantly, military officials. The Foreign Ministry and North Korea’s diplomats do little to appeal to this latter constituency. Though he is no longer in uniform, Kim Yong Chol still represents the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) and is one of the few “North Korean Generals” to continue to play a prominent role at the highest levels of policymaking after the demotion of Hwang Pyong So. Furthermore, with the KPA taking on a diminished public role since 2018, both for internal elite politicking and to compensate for this, Kim Jong Un may need Kim Yong Chol to help sell his policies to internal constituencies.

This trip to Washington will be telling. If Kim Yong Chol is acting only as a messenger, combined with his exclusion from the October 2018 meeting between Kim Jong Un and Secretary Pompeo, it may indicate Kim Jong Un is beginning to lay the groundwork for shifting Kim Yong Chol away from US-DPRK relations. Kim is apparently joined in his trip to Washington by Kim Song Hye and Choe Kang Il, both career diplomats. Kim Song Hye, in particular, is seen as a chief strategist within the UFD and potentially the one Kim Jong Un really trusts to get US-DPRK relations back on track.

If this is accurate, someone like Ri Su Yong and Ri Yong Ho, with more obvious diplomatic credentials, may begin to play more of a role in US-DPRK relations, possibly after the second summit. But the United States should not interpret the replacement of Kim Yong Chol as a move to appeal to US preferences. If Kim makes this choice, it is more likely because Kim Jong Un’s calculus has changed and the internal situation in his regime has shifted such that he no longer needs to balance his softer approach with a man like Kim Yong Chol.

  1. [1]

    Ken E. Gause, “North Korean Leadership Dynamics under Kim Jong-un: A Second Year Assessment,” CNA, COP-2014-U-006988-Final, 2014.

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