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Suspicion Raised Over Death of North Korean Official

  • Han Sang Mi

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pays his last respects to Kim Yang Gon in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on Dec. 31, 2015.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pays his last respects to Kim Yang Gon in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on Dec. 31, 2015.

North Korea's announcement that its top official on relations with South Korea died in a car accident is sparking speculation among analysts in Seoul about the cause of his death.

North Korea's state media said Kim Yang Gon, a secretary of the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, died in a traffic accident Tuesday. No details were provided.

South Korean officials say they have no information to counter the North Korean account. Citing government sources, South Korean media reported Kim might have died from injuries sustained in a head-on crash in the northwestern border city of Sinuiju. The vehicle in which Kim was riding collided with a truck, according to the report.

However, some North Korea analysts in Seoul are raising suspicions that Kim's death might have been planned. Skeptics say it appears to fit a pattern of mysterious car accidents involving senior officials. Kim's predecessor died in a suspicious traffic accident in 2003.

A gun salute is performed at the funeral of senior North Korean official Kim Yang Gon in Pyongyang in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Dec. 31, 2015.

A gun salute is performed at the funeral of senior North Korean official Kim Yang Gon in Pyongyang in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Dec. 31, 2015.

Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector who runs a think tank in Seoul, said the accident could be a cover-up for a plot to assassinate Kim. Ahn speculated Kim, who was known to be a pragmatist, might have been targeted by hard-liners in the military.

"A major reshuffling of senior officials and key organizations is expected to take place during the upcoming party convention. The hard-liners might have feared Kim's growing influence," Ahn said.

Possible power struggle

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, told South Korea's news channel YTN that Kim's death could have been the result of a feud with his rivals. Recently, the veteran party official has emerged as one of the close aides to leader Kim Jong Un, according to Yang.

Cheong Seong-chang, director of unification strategy studies at the Sejong Institute, argues there is no evidence to suggest that Kim might have been involved in a power struggle. Cheong added Kim was known to maintain a good relationship with his rivals.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the way North Korean leaders handled the death leaves little room for foul play.

"The fact that the leadership set up a state funeral committee headed by Kim Jong Un is a strong indication that it was just an accident," Kim said.

On Thursday, North Korea's state television showed still photos of Kim Jong Un at the wake of Kim Yang Gon. In the photos, Kim appeared to be overcome with emotions in front of his aide's open casket.

Kim Yang Gon had been in charge of inter-Korean affairs since 2007. The 73-year-old official often represented Pyongyang in high-level talks with Seoul. In August, he participated in lengthy negotiations with South Korean officials that ended a military confrontation between the two Koreas over North Korea's alleged land mine attacks on South Korean soldiers.

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