A senior Pyongyang official in charge of ties with South Korea and close aide of leader Kim Jong-un has died in a car crash, state media reported. Kim Yang-gon, who helped ease military tensions with South Korea in August after artillery fire was exchanged, was described as the leader's "closest comrade, a solid revolutionary partner".
Kim Yang-gon was in charge of the ruling Workers' Party's United Front Department, the unit responsible for handling North Korea's relationship with its southern neighbour. State news agency KCNA called his death a "huge loss" and said: "Comrade Kim Yang-gon, a Workers' Party secretary and member of the party Central Committee Politbureau...died in a traffic accident at 6:15am (9.45pm GMT), Tuesday (29 December), at age 73".
He was also described as "the dearest and the most trustworthy comrade-in-arms" of the North Korean dictator, who will lead an 80-member state funeral on 31 December. North Korea usually holds just one state funeral per year, but an exception was made after Kim's unexpected death.
It is uncertain who will succeed Kim Yang-gon in Pyongyang's cross-border dealings, leaving a potential vacuum in the North Korean leadership. "This raises worries that an extended suspension in inter-Korean dialogue may be inevitable due to his death," Cheong Seong Chang, North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul told Bloomberg. "There's a possibility that this could lead to more frigid relations."
Kim Jong-un's former right-hand man, Choe Ryong Hae was listed in the state funeral committee for Kim Yang-gon following a near two-month absence. Last month he was sent to receive an ideological reeducation over problems with the construction of a power plant near Mount Paektu near North Korea's border with China.
It is unclear where Choe Ryong Hae received his punishment, with some organisations reporting that he was sent to Kim Il Sung Higher Party School while others suggest that he was sent to do hard labour at a rural farm or coal mine. The regime of Kim Jong-un appears to be opting for milder punishments and reform programmes rather than violent purges of senior officials. Choe's inclusion on the list indicates that he has been reinstated, according to Yonhap News.