North Korean Facing Pompeo Is a Master Spy Who Helped Groom Kim, Then Survived His Purges

Officials say Kim Yong Chol’s meeting in New York marks the highest-level visit to the United States by a North Korean in 18 years, aimed at salvaging the summit.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
North Korean Gen. Kim Yong Chol meets U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 31 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean Gen. Kim Yong Chol meets U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 31 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

The North Korean official meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to salvage nuclear talks is a former spy chief linked to some of his country’s highest-profile military operations in recent years, including a 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures that caused the company widespread embarrassment and millions in damage.

Kim Yong Chol met with Pompeo in New York on Wednesday evening, in what officials described as the highest-level visit to the United States by a North Korean in 18 years. They dined on filet mignon and vanilla ice cream, according to the State Department, before reconvening for formal talks on Thursday morning.

Their talks — and the possibility that the two men are forging a personal rapport — could prove pivotal to the prospects of a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un aimed at ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear program, according to analysts.

“It’s much more about personal relations, because I know how much value [the North Koreans] put into this,” said Mickey Bergman, a veteran negotiator with North Koreans and vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to securing the release of political prisoners around the world.

Kim is one of North Korea’s most powerful behind-the-scenes figures and an ultimate regime survivalist, according to diplomats and former intelligence officials. His emergence as the face of North Korea’s diplomacy with Washington suggests he has unusual influence in a country that revolves almost exclusively around leader Kim Jong Un.

The 73-year-old Kim, who is the vice chairman of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party, has served three generations of North Korean dictators. He managed to survive a deadly wave of purges that felled many of his counterparts in the top echelons of North Korean government after Kim Jong Un assumed office in 2011.

“Kim Jong Un came to power and purged hundreds of people. This guy not only survived the purge but managed to become his right-hand guy,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who is now a senior fellow for Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“He can speak for Kim Jong Un. I don’t know anyone else who can do that.”

From 2009 to 2016, Gen. Kim headed North Korea’s top intelligence and cybersecurity agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, where he was linked to infamous cyberattacks against the West and deadly attacks against South Korea. He is believed to have been briefly demoted in 2012 following a roundup of North Korean spy networks in South Korea but reemerged after what has been described as “rehabilitation.” Details on the episode are scarce.

He helped groom Kim Jong Un during his ascent to power, according to Jung Pak, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked as an analyst at the CIA.

“The spy organization is incredibly important … especially during the grooming process,” she said. “So he must’ve been doing something right in that position to have had it for seven years and for Kim to entrust him.”

Gen. Kim started his career as a guard at the demilitarized zone bordering South Korea in the 1960s and later went on to be a liaison officer with the United Nations, a bodyguard for Kim Jong Il, and a military negotiator for North-South talks in the 1990s and late 2000s.

Like many in Kim’s inner circle, the general is under heavy sanctions from the United States.

He is believed to have masterminded two deadly assaults against South Korea during his tenure as spy chief: a torpedo attack in March 2010 on a South Korean naval ship that killed 46 sailors and the shelling later that year of South Korean islands that killed four and injured 19.

North Korea’s 2014 cyberattack on Sony Pictures, which Kim is thought to have helped direct, followed the company’s release of a comedy that depicted Kim Jong Un’s assassination.

More recently, the general has been at the center of North Korea’s diplomatic engagements. He twice joined the North Korean delegation to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the demilitarized zone between the North and South.

He was also part of the North Korean delegation to the South Korean Winter Olympics in February, where at the closing ceremony he stood stone-faced near Trump’s daughter and advisor, Ivanka Trump, neither appearing to acknowledge the other.

His visit to New York marks his third meeting with Pompeo, who as CIA director and then secretary of state made two secret visits to North Korea this year to secure the release of three American detainees and lay the groundwork for a June 12 summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Trump abruptly canceled the summit last week, citing North Korea’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” toward the United States. But he has also said a meeting could still take place.

An American delegation led by White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Joe Hagin — described as a “pre-advance” team — is in Singapore planning logistics for the possible summit.

Separately, senior U.S. diplomats and security officials are meeting with their counterparts from Pyongyang at the demilitarized zone on the North Korea-South Korea border.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer