North Korean state media say a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has died in a car crash.
The KCNA news agency said 73-year-old Kim Yang Gon, the head of Pyongyang's United Front Department -- the unit that manages North Korea's ties with South Korea -- died early Tuesday.
A career party diplomat, Kim led a high-level delegation that held emergency talks in August with South Korean envoys after troops from the rival governments traded artillery fire as part of a dispute over South Korean propaganda broadcasts into the North.
Negotiators reached a deal days later under which the South agreed to stop the broadcasts and the North apologized for a string of border provocations. Kim also played a leading role in a 2007 summit between former leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who died in 2009.
A state funeral is being planned for Kim, who was described by the state-run KCNA news agency as Kim Jong Un's “closest comrade and a solid revolutionary partner.”
The lack of detail surrounding the car accident Tuesday has fed speculation that Kim's death was suspicious and even intentional. But, Korea analyst Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University told VOA, he tends to believe the official version that this was an accident.
Lee noted that in a highly unusual gesture, South Korea's Unification Ministry offered official condolences following news of the Kim death. He said President Park Geun-hye, in the fourth year of her single five-year term, may be trying to keep the momentum of recent improved ties going.
And, Lee said, the Kim funeral is being planned quickly so it can occur before the anticipated annual New Year’s Day address by leader Kim Jong-Un, who marks his birthday on January 8.
Victor Beattie contributed to this report.