Did Top North Korean Official Die by Accident or Assassination?

Yet another top North Korean official has met a violent and untimely death. No one knows if it was a tragic accident or political assassination.

Kim Yang-gon was in charge of negotiations with South, where he was respected. He supposedly died in an early morning car accident. A surprising number of North Korea’s high officials appear to leave the world this way; yet defectors say accidents are common given the poor streets and tendency of top officials to drive drunk.

Still, it looks suspicious. But it doesn’t appear to be a state-sanctioned hit. Dictator Kim Jong-un praised his “close comrade-at-arms” and showed emotion at the state funeral. 

Perhaps a rival took out Kim Yang-gon. However, while he was well-connected, having served “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il too, it’s not apparent that he is the sort of rival worth killing.

Which leaves everyone outside again looking through the mirror darkly, as the Bible puts it.

The Korean status quo obviously is unsatisfactory. Indeed, it is positively dangerous. While everyone discounts North Korea’s endless threats against both South Korea and the U.S., as the North’s military capabilities grow people are more likely to treat them as warnings to be taken seriously. Proposals for military action against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might enjoy a revival.

Of course, the more dangerous Pyongyang perceives the international environment, the more committed it likely will become to building a sizeable nuclear arsenal and missile force. And to the extent that the North can argue that it is responding defensively to America, the less likely Beijing will be to apply more pressure on the DPRK.

An intrepid few have forthrightly proposed military action. But that would be a wild gamble, risking thousands of lives, mostly Korean, on both sides.

Enhanced sanctions look pretty good compared to war. And tighter financial controls would make it much harder for the Kim regime to do business with the world. However, Sudan gets by despite strict financial controls.

Moreover, without Beijing’s acquiescence, the U.S. won’t be able to cut the North’s lifeline. Forcing a national implosion would have unpredictable and potentially violent consequences.

For some the People’s Republic of China is the preferred option. Just get the PRC to force the North into line. That presumes Beijing has the ability to do so.

Moreover, the PRC has good reason to choose the status quo over creating the possibility of chaos and war on China’s southern border. Moreover, Beijing is unlikely to do any favors for the U.S., which would use a united Korea as part of a containment strategy against China.

If none of these, then what?

Some form of engagement with the objectives of moderating regime behavior, easing the threat environment, constraining arms development, encouraging domestic reform, and improving human development. Not because the chances of success seem great, but because there is no better option.

That means the South should continue talks despite Kim Yang-gon’s death. In fact, in his New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-un expressed his desire to improve bilateral relations.

And as I argue on National Interest online: “the U.S. should open a dialogue, with the objective of initiating official though low-key relations. A diplomatic presence in Pyongyang would provide a small keyhole for peering into this mysterious country. Although expectations should be low, tempering hostilities could lead to additional benefits, especially if Kim Jong-un uses next year’s party congress to modernize.”

Winston Churchill once said of the Soviet Union that it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That certainly describes the DPRK for the West. Kim Yang-gon’s death only makes the puzzle more complex. Increasing contact with Pyongyang is the best way to begin to understand the North and influence its future.