Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN and columnist for USA Today. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
North Korea’s leading nuclear negotiator, Kim Yong Chol and his congenial American counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, share several common lines on their resumés. Both began their careers as officers in their respective armies, Pompeo finishing first in his class at West Point. Both eventually had leadership roles in their respective nations’ parliaments. And both headed their countries’ intelligence agencies.
Now both will be functioning effectively as the Sherpas picking their way to an on-again, off-again summit, so deeply desired yet apparently feared by their nations’ leaders, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. And the apparent congruencies of the two negotiators’ resumes may be more apparent than real.
By all indications, Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, and now in his seventies, may not a very nice man by any stretch of the imagination. Dig deep into his life and you will find elements that should be somewhat disquieting to Donald Trump and his team, who are hoping, with some apparent desperation, to reach a viable, sustainable deal that will bring an immediate end to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and aspirations.
There is nothing in Kim Yong Chol’s past to suggest he would be delighted by any long-term plan to defang his nation or especially its military.
There are many in the North Korean hierarchy who have built their careers on the foundations of a strong, unassailable military force. And the heart of that – now that Kim Jong Un has finally achieved the nuclear capability his father and grandfather had lusted after – is the existence of a deliverable nuclear deterrent.
This is not to say that Kim Yong Chol has ever been deterred from brandishing his nation’s powerful, conventional military arm to challenge South Korea and its allies.
It was as head of the North Korean military intelligence organization, Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), that Kim was alleged to have played a central role in the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy warship in March 2010 that cost 46 lives.
And it was under his command that the North Korean cyber and electronic warfare units were expanded and consolidated. These are believed to have taken a leadership role in the hacking of a Sony corporate website, which paralyzed the company’s operations in November 2014, and against a number of South Korean cyber targets.
By January 2016, he had moved quietly over to the civilian leadership of the communist party apparatus and assumed control of the WPK United Front Department, which functions as the nation’s civilian intelligence organization.
Kim Yong Chol was born in 1945 at the very end of Japanese rule over the Korean peninsula during World War II, spending his early years in the chaos of the Korean War from 1950 to 1954. By the time he was of school age, he was being thoroughly indoctrinated, first in the Mangyo’ngdae Revolutionary School, and then Kim Il Sung Military University, named for the autocratic founder of communist North Korea and the current ruler Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.
He began his career in an elite guards unit along the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. Through his patron, Kim Yong Chol was introduced to Kim Il Sung, becoming eventually the personal bodyguard to his son and successor, and close to the three generations of the family that has ruled North Korea with an iron hand since its creation.
Kim Yong Chol has acquired a reputation of being an unyielding official, who nonetheless ran into career trouble along the way. In early 2012 he lost one of his four stars, and was demoted to colonel general before earning it back apparently within a month—a tribute to the powerful patronage he had acquired and his value as a tough cookie.
Kim is also not particularly well liked in the south: his attendance at the closing ceremonies of the Seoul Olympics in February was not well received. The South Korean daily Hankook Ilbo warned that his presence there could send “raging waves” across the Korean peninsula. The ceremonies went off quietly, but the people of the south have clearly not forgotten or forgiven his role in the deaths of 46 of their countrymen on board the Cheonan.
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Not surprisingly, Kim Yong Chol was high on the list of North Korean leaders to be added to the American sanctions list, barring any travel to the United States. This necessitated a waiver for his trip to New York to meet with Pompeo this week.
But above all, Kim Yong Chol’s checkered past suggests a cautionary tale – don’t be taken in by words of fraternal good will, smiles and handshakes, which are freely given but rarely carry any deep sincerity. Kim Yong Chol’s background strongly suggests that he is the spine to Kim Jong Un’s lately smiling doughboy.
And the elder Kim is quite likely to say or do whatever is necessary to perpetuate the rule of the Workers’ Party of Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un.