President Trump hailed North Korea’s decision to send a high-ranking official to New York City this week as “a solid response” to his letter canceling the historic summit that had been set for June 12 in Singapore.
The North Korean official about to land in New York for nuclear talks is considered the right-hand man of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, and he's the highest-ranking official to visit the U.S. in nearly two decades.
Sending such a high-level official is a clear signal North Korea is serious about pulling off a summit with Trump, according to experts who spoke with VICE News. But the official North Korea picked — Kim Yong Chol — is also famous for his combative, take-no-prisoners style, and he might not be carrying the message of conciliation Trump wants to hear.
“He made a name for himself in South Korea due to his very belligerent and hard-line negotiating style in the early 1990s,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, professor of Korean studies at Tufts University. “He was always very rude, and very aggressive.”
Here’s what you need to know about Kim Yong Chol.
The “No. 2 man”
Though more than twice his boss's age, Kim Yong Chol, 72, is considered a fierce loyalist who climbed the ranks of North Korea’s byzantine bureaucracy. He's best known for leading the country’s RGB intelligence service at a time when the agency was accused of sinking a South Korean naval ship in a torpedo attack that killed 46 people and pulling off the Sony hack.
And his power has grown in recent years.
“For seven years, he was North Korea’s spymaster,” said Lee. “Now, I think it’s fair to say he’s the de facto No. 2 man.”
In fact, he’s currently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, which cited his role atop North Korean intelligence in its 2010 announcement about the sanctions. He'll need a special waiver just to visit the United States Tuesday.
Kim Yong Chol took over the RGB spy agency after it was created in a bureaucratic shakeup in 2009, making him, effectively, the North Korean answer to America’s CIA director, according to Lee.
From that position, Kim Yong Chol oversaw a host of controversial clandestine operations including kidnapping missions, infiltrations into South Korea and the North’s notorious cyber attacks.
In March 2010, the South Korean navy ship called the Cheonan was sunk by what the South Korean military concluded was a torpedo fired by a midget submarine. The incident has been widely, if not conclusively, linked to Kim Yong Chol’s RGB.
Notoriety from the sinking of the Cheonan stuck with him — including last winter, when he set off a firestorm of controversy by attending the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea alongside a delegation meant to highlight the thaw in relations between North and South.
A group of some 30 relatives of those who died in the Cheonan turned out to demonstrate against him in the South Korean capital of Seoul, demanding he be barred from the country and chanting “Execute Kim Yong Chol.”
North Korea has denied any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan. But that incident isn’t the only deadly mission the controversial spy chief has been accused of orchestrating.
A month after the Cheonan sank, South Korea apprehended two spies believed to have been sent to assassinate a high-ranking North Korean defector.
One of the assassins told his captors he’d been directly instructed about the mission by Kim Yong Chol, South Korean media reported.
Kim Jong Un’s attack dog
Among close watchers of North Korean affairs, he’s known for his tough talk and snarky, acid-tipped humor, both of which have been on full display over decades of his involvement in tense international negotiations.
His gruff style has even gotten him in trouble with other senior North Koreans.
Kim Yong Chol’s “overbearing attitude” was reportedly the reason he was sent by his own leadership to a monthlong re-education session in the North Korean countryside in mid-2016, according to the South Korean press.
“We wouldn’t believe the negotiations were serious if they were sending a person over with a clean resume.”
In another case cited by North Korean Leadership Watch, his own former superior, General O Kuk Ryol, once grew so frustrated with Kim that he exclaimed, “I shall have to put my hand to him.”
Former U.S. spy chief James Clapper experienced this firsthand over a 12-course dinner in Pyongyang four years ago.
In 2014, hackers penetrated Sony’s computer systems, distributing emails that embarrassed senior corporate officials, apparently in response to Sony’s release of The Interview, a screwball comedy about an assassination attempt against Kim Jong Un.
Clapper later told a conference in New York that he sat down to dinner with Kim Yong Chol, who he said had signed off on the Sony hack.
“General Kim spent most of the meal berating me about American aggression and what terrible people we were,” Clapper said. “He got louder and louder, and he kept leaning toward me, pointing his finger at my chest and saying that U.S. and South Korean exercises were a provocation to war.”
Their talk got so intense that Clapper had to get up and take a break, he said.
Despite his notoriously prickly style and hawkish reputation, Kim Yong Chol’s visit to New York is ultimately a promising signal that North Korea is serious about the Kim-Trump summit, analysts said.
“We wouldn’t believe the negotiations were serious if they were sending a person over with a clean resume,” said Bridget Coggins, an expert on North Korea at University of Southern California in Santa Barbara. “Would we really trust someone who wasn’t sanctioned?”