December 31, 2015 / 3:47 AM / 2 years ago

North Korea says top aide to leader Kim dies in car crash

North Korean spy chief Kim Yang Gon gets in a car upon his arrival at the transit office near the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, in this file picture taken November 29, 2007. REUTERS/Han Jae-Ho/Files

SEOUL (Reuters) - A senior North Korean official and a top aide to leader Kim Jong Un has died in a car accident, state news agency reported on Wednesday, the latest dramatic death or disappearance in the close circle of deputies to the country’s leader.

Kim Yang Gon, 73, died at dawn on Tuesday, the KCNA news agency said. It gave no details of the accident, prompting some analysts to question the cause. The deaths of several North Korean officials have been put down to car crashes in recent years.

Kim Yang Gon, who was a secretary of the Workers’ Party and the head of its United Front Department, the unit that handles ties with South Korea, was Kim Jong Un’s “closest comrade, a solid revolutionary partner”, the KCNA news agency said.

Top official Choe Ryong Hae, who had been absent from state media since late October and was rumored to have been in internal exile, was listed as a member of the funeral committee. His reappearance alongside Kim Yang Gon’s death follows numerous reshuffles and deaths in the secretive leadership.

North Korea’s main newspaper showed photos of a visibly upset Kim Jong Un holding back tears beside Kim Yang Gon’s open casket.

Kim Yang Gon was part of a high-level delegation that held talks in August after North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire, raising tension between the old rivals to one of its highest levels in years.

The talks produced an agreement that ended the standoff, and for the two sides, still technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, to reopen dialogue to improve ties.

Kim Yang Gon had appeared to grow closer to Kim Jong Un recently, accompanying the young leader at various farm and factory inspections and diplomatic meetings.

He was an experienced adviser with a broad understanding of foreign affairs, but he had high-level foes, said Michael Madden, an expert on the North Korean leadership.

“He had enemies in the leadership who could do something like this without impunity, or at least it being linked directly to them,” he told Reuters.

Kim Jong Un has dismissed several aides since he took over when his father died suddenly in 2011.

In 2013, he purged and executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was once considered the second most powerful man in the country, for “anti-revolutionary crimes”.

Impoverished North Korea’s road network is badly maintained and car ownership is rare. The deaths of several high-level officials have been put down to traffic accidents.

In 1976, an official said to be a rival to then-president Kim Il Sung died in a car crash. In 2003, a predecessor to Kim Yang Gon died in a traffic accident and in 2010 top official Ri Je Gang also died in a crash.

”North Korea has a long track record of suspicious deaths around high-level officials,“ said North Korea expert Andrei Lankov. ”Most die either because they are machine-gunned, or they die in car crashes.

“There are almost no cars and security for high-officials traveling in cars is extremely tight. Given that, one is bound to be skeptical about any such report coming from North Korea.”

Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie

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