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North Korea Is Sending Military Hardliner Kim Yong Chol to the Olympic Closing Ceremony. Here’s What to Know

4 minute read

As the Winter Olympics comes to an end in South Korea this weekend, eyes will be trained on a potential encounter between a hardline military general from North Korea, and the daughter of the U.S. President.

Kim Yong Chol is leading North Korea’s delegation at the closing ceremony, which is also due to be attended by U.S. presidential adviser Ivanka Trump. The former North Korean intelligence chief’s three-day trip to the country is already stirring controversy due to his links to attacks on South Korea.

North Korea’s decision to send Kim came hours after the White House announced that it would send Ivanka Trump to Pyeongchang, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The opening ceremony more than two weeks ago was attended by Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, where she invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for talks. Her soft diplomacy is a harsh contrast to General Kim’s hawkish stance towards the South. Here’s more:

Who is Kim Yong Chol?

Kim is considered one of the most powerful figures in North Korea. He is currently a vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, a polyglot who led the country’s intelligence community for nearly three decades, according to North Korea Leadership Watch.

He was born in 1945 and began his career in a military police unit in 1962 at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which divides the two Koreas. He spent time as a bodyguard of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and went on to become one of the public faces of the country’s army in state media.

He became Pyongyang’s chief military negotiator during inter-Korean talk between 2006-2008 and was appointed the first head of Reconnaissance General Bureau in 2009, roughly equivalent to the head of the CIA.

He is believed to have briefly demoted by two ranks in 2012 due to his “poor performance” as a number of North Korean spies were arrested south of the border, South Korean paper Chosun reports. In 2016, he took charge of a civilian intelligence agency that apparently operates pro-North Korean groups in South Korea.

Why is he controversial?

He is accused of masterminding two attacks on the South while in the Reconnaissance General Bureau. The first was the March 2010 torpedoing of Korean navy ship Cheonan, which led to the loss of 46 sailors. He is also accused of planning an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, which killed two civilians and two South Korean marines, and almost sparked a larger conflict. South Korea imposed sanctions on the regime over the incidents.

Nearly 40 conservative South Korean lawmakers protested outside the presidential Blue House on Friday, urging President Moon to cancel the visit and calling for Kim’s execution, AFP reports.

Has General Kim ever attacked U.S. targets?

He is believed to have had responsibility for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures in 2014. During a speech in New York the following year, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recounted a testy 12-course meal he had with Kim, in which he described the general as “the guy that ultimately would have to okay the cyber-attack against Sony,” Clapper said.

Sony Pictures was hacked in 2014, apparently in retaliation for a Seth Rogen comedy The Interview that portrayed Kim Jong Un’s death. The attackers stole huge chunks of confidential documents and shared them online. Clapper at the time called it the most serious digital attack on the U.S. North Korea has flatly denied any involvement.

Why did the North Korean regime send the General?

Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have frayed during the Games, after Vice President Mike Pence attended the opening ceremony on Feb. 9 and ignored Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The North Koreans reportedly backed out from a meeting the next day arranged by South Korea with Pence, according to the Washington Post.

Pence launched his trip to Asia by announcing the “toughest and most aggressive’ sanctions against the North and criticizing its nuclear ambitions. He also met with North Korean defectors, which rankled the regime.

Then, the day before the Games were due to end, the White House confirmed the sanctions targeting North Korea’s shipping industry, which extend to 27 companies and 28 ships.

Will Ivanka meet the general?

It’s unlikely. The White House says the First Daughter has no plans to interact with North Korean officials, will not be meeting any defectors, and no private negotiations were scheduled during her three-day visit.

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