Kim Yong-chol, Kim Jong-Un aide, aims to outwit Trump negotiators
SEOUL He’s spent his 40-year career scheming to destroy the U.S.-South Korean alliance, advancing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and threatening to turn the South into a “hell of fires.” He orchestrated the deadly sinking of a South Korean navy vessel, and he masterminded a massive cyberattack on America.
His name is Kim Yong-chol, Pyongyang’s former intelligence chief and a central player in the drama set to unfold when President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meet for a critical second summit to try to ease the nuclear standoff on the divided Korean Peninsula.
Over the past year, Kim Yong-chol has emerged as the 35-year-old dictator’s lead nuclear negotiator a sharklike operative Trump administration insiders know they will have to outsmart if they are to persuade the regime to truly and verifiably give up its nuclear bombs and long-range missiles.
U.S. and South Korean sources, including high-level North Korean defectors in Seoul, where the black-box machinations of the North are studied with more fever than perhaps anywhere else, say the 73-year-old former confidant of Kim Jong-un’s father has been at the center of a murky regime reorganization over recent months designed to foil U.S. negotiators ahead of this week’s second summit in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
Mr. Trump may be meeting with Kim Jong-un, they say, but it’s Kim Yong-chol who deserves credit and blame for the dearth of concrete action since the first summit in Singapore in June. As the opening of the Wednesday and Thursday summit nears, Kim Yong Chol’s behind-the-scenes role deserves closer scrutiny.
There are, for instance, big unknowns over how much influence he truly has. Some say he will execute whatever Kim Jong-un decides with regard to the North’s weapons, even if it means negotiating them away to the Americans. But there is consensus that Kim Yong-chol’s involvement means the looming follow-on negotiations are destined to be a bare-knuckle slog, because his true focus is to grind down the Americans for as long as possible and to entice them into removing their own military footprint from South Korea.
“For Kim Yong-chol and other North Korean negotiators working behind the scenes, the ultimate and premier objective is to get U.S. forces off the Korean Peninsula,” said Robert Collins, a senior adviser to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, who has lived in South Korea more than four decades and is an expert on the Pyongyang regime.
“That comes first before the regime can accomplish their supreme ideological goal of unification with South Korea under the North’s conditions,” Mr. Collins said in an interview over dinner on a recent evening.
U.S. officials, including lead State Department envoy Stephen Biegun, have insisted in recent days that U.S. troop withdrawals from South Korea will not be on the formal agenda as Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim begin their talks.
But Kim Yong-chol will also act on Kim Jong-un’s orders, no matter what they are. “The reason,” said Mr. Collins, “is that Kim Yong-chol knows that failure in negotiations means severe problems for him and others on the North’s negotiating team. Think severe purge.”
Wearing down the Americans
Purges and executions of high-level officials have long been the method by which the three generations of the Kim dynasty undergirded their power. Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, used harsh methods to keep the regime fresh and devoted to their monolithic rule.
Kim Jong-un picked up where they left off upon rising to power in 2012. Within a year, he signed off on the death of his own uncle, North Korean army chief Jang Song-thaek. The execution was reportedly carried out by an anti-aircraft gun and flamethrower.
The young dictator was later accused of greenlighting the 2017 killing at a Malaysian airport of his elder brother Kim Jong-nam, reportedly a favorite of China to replace Kim Jong-un should his hold on power slip in Pyongyang. More recently, 65-year-old former top diplomat Han Song-ryol was purged and sent off to an austere “re-education” camp.
Such developments present a threatening backdrop to more subtle rearranging of the regime’s nuclear negotiating team during the lead-up to the Hanoi summit.
“After the first summit and prior to this coming second summit, right in between, we’ve seen this shift in terms of the people who are in the lineup,” said Kim In-tea, a former North Korean official who defected to Seoul a decade ago.
“From one perspective, it’s not unprecedented or exceptional. It may just purely have been for reasons of a generational shift,” said Mr. Kim, now a senior research fellow with the South’s government-run Institute for National Security Strategy. “But from another perspective, it’s part of a strategy shift ... with Kim Yong-chol seeming to be overseeing all of the negotiations with the U.S.”
His expanded role has also meant the sidelining of more mild-mannered North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, a development some contend was driven by a strategic desire to ruffle U.S. negotiators.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “wanted to work with Ri, his counterpart, rather than Kim Yong-chol, who is kind of pugnacious and certainly not a diplomat,” said a source close to the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials were still scrambling to decipher the shift when it became suddenly clear just weeks ago that working-level negotiator Choe Son-hui was replaced with more seasoned diplomat Kim Hyok-chol. The Trump administration learned of her removal only when Kim Yong-chol revealed it during a late-January visit to Washington, where he also set the time and location for this week’s summit.
Kim In-tea, the North Korean defector, said the movements were likely engineered by Kim Yong-chol and signal that the regime is now getting serious about the negotiations. But analysts are divided over whether “getting serious” means a decisive shift to denuclearization and economic development or a return to tried-and-true North Korean stalling tactics designed to wring concessions from the U.S. without offering any meaningful concessions.
The unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment stated outright last month that North Korea remains “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons because its leaders ultimately view [them] as critical to the regime’s survival.”
A separate assessment circulated among U.S. negotiators and intelligence officials focused on Kim Yong-chol’s potentially pivotal role, suggesting that the regime’s strategy includes driving an irreparable wedge between Washington and Seoul.
His official position as a vice chairman of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, coupled with his role on the party’s newly created Executive Policy Bureau, give Kim Yong-chol serious influence over the “crisis action decision-making” process, according to the assessment, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.
“During crises, [his] role will not only be intelligence but one of advice to be aggressive toward the [South Korean]-U.S. alliance,” it said, asserting that “his advice is dangerous for the [U.S.-South Korean] alliance as [he] is always employed in the aggressive mode.”
The assessment went on to note that Kim Yong-chol has risen recently to enjoy “greater access” to Kim Jong-un: “They were already close due to Kim Yong-chol’s service to Kim Jong-il. But furthermore, Kim Yong-chol was Kim Jong-un’s adjunct professor while Kim Jong-un did his graduate studies at Kim Il-sung Military Academy.”
Kim Yong-chol’s touch was first deeply felt by the Trump administration just weeks after Singapore, when Mr. Pompeo flew to Pyongyang with hopes to hold a follow-up meeting with the North’s leader.
The secretary of state instead was left to meet with Kim Yong-chol. The meeting apparently turned sour fast. Mr. Pompeo said the two “made progress on almost all the central issues,” but North Korean state media offered a starkly different take within hours of the meeting. Reports accused the Trump administration of using “gangsterlike” tactics to pressure the regime into denuclearizing.
Tensions flared anew in November, when the State Department announced that Mr. Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol were slated to meet again, this time in New York only to have the meeting abruptly canceled by the North just before it was to occur.
The assessment circulated among U.S. negotiators and intelligence officials warned that Kim Yong-chol “may use a civilized personal approach, but his messages will be highly aggressive.” The document noted his “politically advantaged family” background and studies as a child at “Mangyongdae Academy, North Korea’s most prestigious school for the nation’s elite families,” setting him on a path to the highest ranks of power.
By his 40s, Kim Yong-chol was a general in the military with an inside role in the Kim regime’s on-again, off-again talks with South Korea, first under Kim Il-sung and later Kim Jong-il.
His aggressive negotiating tactics won respect. When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, Kim Yong-chol was chosen as a member of the national funeral committee, a rare honor that cemented his position among the top echelons of the regime.
At the time, he was serving as director of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, the regime’s intelligence directorate, tasked with spying on the South’s military. It was also during this period that he was quoted after North Korea’s third nuclear detonation test in 2013 as threatening to transform the South into a “hell of fires.”
Mr. Trump made a similar comment two years ago when he threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea if it didn’t halt its nuclear and ballistic missile provocations at the time. Some saw the president’s words as a carefully chosen response to Kim Yong-chol’s past rhetoric.
But Kim Yong-chol’s words had already been backed up by action. As intelligence chief, he reportedly masterminded the 2010 sinking of the South Korean navy’s corvette Cheonan, an attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North also shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong Island that year, killing four people and injuring scores while images of flaming bomb debris spiraled through the world’s media.
Then there was the 2014 hacking of the Sony USA Corp., which U.S. officials blamed on North Korean intelligence under the leadership of Kim Yong-chol, who was specifically named in subsequent U.S. sanctions. That hard-liner reputation factored heavily into Kim Jong-un’s choice to elevate him to a lead role in the nuclear talks with Washington.
“It’s almost like a battle of strength between two alpha males,” said Lee Gee-dong, vice president of the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul. “When going out to fight against or negotiate with an opponent as worthy as the U.S., who would have been a better choice than Kim Yong-chol, with his very uncompromising posture and the hard-line positions he’s known for?”
But Mr. Lee also offered the surprising argument that Kim Jong-un does intend to abandon his nuclear weapons and that the choice of Kim Yong-chol as head negotiator is all part of the young dictator’s delicate push through a major policy shift that may anger parts of the North’s military elites.
“Since coming to power, Kim Jong-un has put priority on economic development,” said Mr. Lee, asserting that Kim Jong-un’s plan is to finally cash in the nuclear bargaining chip upon which his father and grandfather staked their legacies.
“In North Korea, they often say that nuclear weapons are their all-powerful sword, and people interpret that to mean it’s the only way that can ensure the survivability of the regime,” he said. “But in actuality, there are two meanings behind this. The other meaning is that these nuclear weapons can be wielded in a different way that they can be exchanged for compensation that will make North Korea an economic powerhouse. That’s what Kim Jong-un has been aiming for.”
Kim Yong-chol ‘has no soul’
Mr. Lee emphasized the significance of having a top regime insider and loyalist advance Kim Jong-un’s goal and suggested that Kim Yong-chol’s role could be to stave off an internal coup in North Korea.
“Why would there not be any resentment and complaints and opposition, especially among the military, to this decision to abandon the nuclear weaponry?” he said. “The people of North Korea have had to forgo food, they’ve starved, they’ve tightened their belts to divert all the resources to develop their nuclear capabilities and nuclear weapons. And now this new leader shows up and he wants to give it all up? How could there not be an ounce of opposition against this? The reason is that Kim Yong-chol is being used so that such resentment can be swept under the rug.
“That this man, who in essence represents the military by way of his career and his background, has come out to now negotiate with the U.S., serves as a means for Kim Jong-un to justify his position,” Mr. Lee added. “He’s sending a message to the military that, ‘Look, a man who represents you has now come out as a chief interlocutor to now negotiate away and barter away the nuclear weapons.’”
Analysts in Seoul agree that having Kim Yong-chol on board increases the odds for a meaningful agreement.
“If Kim Yong-chol is on the boat, there will be much better chance of actual follow-up implementation of whatever agreement gets reached,” said Jun Bong-geun, the head of security and unification studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “This is because Kim Jong-un needs to persuade the hard-line bureaucrats and the military to go along with it, and Kim Yong-chol can help achieve that.”
But can he really be trusted?
“Yes,” said North Korean defector Kim In-tea, who argued that the reason is as macabre as anything else about the mysterious regime that has ruled in Pyongyang for three generations: “Kim Yong-chol has no soul.”
“As with many of North Korea’s power elite, they don’t have the leisure to be able to hold on to their own souls,” the defector said. “The one who has their soul is Kim Jong-un.
“All they can do is strain their ears to hear what Kim Jong-un says and hope to follow and act on the thoughts he may think,” he added.
One misstep, Kim In-tea noted, and the consequences will be grave. “If they have their own soul and they give out their own voice, they are immediately purged.”
Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official and one of the few Americans to ever directly hold talks with Kim Yong-chol, agreed.
“Kim Yong-chol is not the player here. The player is Kim Jong-un, and Kim Yong-chol is taking orders from him and will be a good lieutenant,” Mr. DeTrani said in an interview.
But Kim Yong-chol can be trusted to play serious hardball in private talks, said Mr. DeTrani, who recalled being quietly dispatched by the Obama administration in 2012 to visit Pyongyang, where he met with the intelligence chief to convey concern over North Korea’s uranium enrichment activities and its construction of the Al Kibar nuclear reactor in Syria, which Israeli fighter jets destroyed in 2007.
“He’s not a pushover,” Mr. DeTrani said with a laugh. “When I met him, we talked about proliferation and conveyed the message to ‘please make sure you don’t sell any weapons or fissile materials to rogue state actors.’ We also reminded him we knew they had a uranium enrichment program and they should be forthcoming about it.”
Kim Yong-chol’s response? “He pushed back on all of it, saying, ‘We don’t know anything about Al Kibar, and we don’t have a uranium enrichment program,’” said Mr. DeTrani. “But when it comes to now, I believe Kim Yong-chol is on board with Kim Jong-un’s vision of a negotiated peaceful solution to the nuclear issue. He’s carrying water for KJU and will make sure the vision goes the way Kim Jong-un wants.”
The ‘Kim whisperer’
Some caution that the Pyongyang regime is so opaque that it’s impossible to know for certain the dynamic between Kim Yong-chol and Kim Jong-un, particularly with regard to the idea that the old regime stalwart wields influence over the young dictator and not the other way around.
“I’m of the belief that nobody is really manipulating Kim Jong-un from the outside. That’s what he has in common with his father and grandfather,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and North Korea analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “But from the inside? That’s a different question.”
He added, “Look, the person you don’t want to be in North Korea is the No. 2. If we wanted to undermine the regime right now, we would portray Kim Yong-chol as the manipulator and start calling him out as the No. 2 and maybe even a potential successor should Kim Jong-un fail. Kim Jong-un would probably respond by getting out the 45 mm and doing what he did to Jang Song-thaek back in 2012.”
The question of who has Kim Jong-un’s ear is a matter of increasing analytical urgency in Washington and Seoul.
Some in the Trump administration believe it is Kim Jong-un’s younger sister who has been quietly pushing him to embrace economic opening and denuclearization. Kim Yo-jong is one of the few other North Korean elites with a Western education, and it is believed she and her brother have a special relationship based on the isolated years they shared together as children, when they both were sent to Switzerland for studies during the late-1990s.
It was, after all, Kim Yo-jong who accompanied Kim Jong-un at the Singapore summit, and whom Kim Jong-un put in front of a North Korean delegation that attended the Olympics in South Korea early last year. The two key developments set the nuclear talks into motion.
“She’s the one who was chosen to be out front on this whole move of diplomacy that’s been unfolding for the past year,” said one source close to Mr. Trump. “There’s a feeling among some high-level people in the U.S. intelligence community that she may be the trusted, behind-the-scenes whisperer in Kim Jong-un’s ear.”
But what is she whispering? That’s still a bothersome unknown, said the source, who asserted that Mr. Trump remains uncertain about whether or not Mr. Kim has truly made a decision to pursue denuclearization.
“The key issue is how do we know what we know with regard to North Korean politics or Kim Jong-un’s mindset and the regime’s real posture toward President Trump,” said Michael Pillsbury, a former intelligence official and Asia analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
He added that other powers monitoring Pyongyang have low expectations about Mr. Kim’s commitment to denuclearization. “The Chinese have shared at least with me their knowledge of internal workings of the regime in Pyongyang,” Mr. Pillsbury told The Times. “The message they have is this: ‘Don’t expect much from Chairman Kim.’”