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(LEAD) (News Focus) Key N.K. official's death to hamper inter-Korean ties in short run: experts

All Headlines 19:23 December 30, 2015

(ATTN: CORRECTS info in paras 4-5,11,15)
By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Dec. 30 (Yonhap) -- The death of a top North Korean official handling inter-Korean affairs may strain Seoul-Pyongyang ties in the short run, experts said Wednesday, amid murky outlooks following a breakdown of the two Koreas' recent talks.

Kim Yang-gon, a secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, died in a car accident on Tuesday at age 73, North Korea's state media said, calling him "the closest comrade-in-arms" of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

South and North Korea have sought to mend their strained ties this year following an inter-Korean deal in August to defuse military tension.

Experts said that Kim's death may hamper Seoul-Pyongyang ties in the short term as the North's leader lost a seasoned official who could give advice on inter-Korean affairs. But over the long haul, such a negative impact on the relations would be short-lived, they added.

"It (his death) will most likely cause a delay in North Korea's decision-making regarding their next steps," said Ken Gause, a senior analyst on North Korea at CNA Corp. in the United States.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, cast a similar view, saying that inter-Korean relations would be under pressure in the short term.

"As Kim had an image of a mild and dialogue-seeking figure, there is the possibility that the North's leader may show less flexibility in dealing with its ties with South Korea," the professor said. "But over the long run, the North's stance over inter-Korean ties will not significantly change."

Kim was one of the two North Korean representatives who joined rare inter-Korean high-level talks in August following heightened tensions sparked by a land mine blast near the inter-Korean border blamed on North Korea.

After the two Koreas went to the brink of armed conflict, they reached a rare deal on Aug. 25 to ease military tensions and resume high-level inter-Korean talks.

But their relations have recently faced setbacks again as South and North Korea ended vice-ministerial talks on Dec. 12 without any agreement over how to mend their ties.

Kim had handled inter-Korean affairs since the regime of Kim Jong-il, the father of the North's current leader, who died in late 2011.

In 2007, he was named the head of the party's United Front Department, which manages Pyongyang's relations with Seoul. He also contributed to realizing an inter-Korean summit held between Kim Jong-il and then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in October of that year.

"The government should prepare for possible unpredictable situations in North Korea as it would not be easy for the North to immediately find a figure with expertise on inter-Korean affairs," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.

Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman at the Unification Ministry, refrained from commenting on the effect of Kim's death on the Koreas' ties, saying that a closer watch is needed.

North Korea plans to hold a ruling party congress for the first time in about three decades in May next year, a key event at which the North's leader may unveil new policies and conduct a major reshuffle.

Speculation is rampant that Kim Jong-un would seek to achieve some feats at home and abroad ahead of the key party congress.

Meanwhile, some experts said that the party secretary's death may delay an improvement in the North's ties with China as Kim reportedly handled international affairs at the party.

Since Kang Sok-ju, a secretary handling international relations for the North's ruling party, remains ill, Kim was known as doubling up on Kang's jobs.

North Korea's ties with China have been severely frayed following the North's third nuclear test in February 2013. Signs of better ties had emerged after Liu Yunshan, the Chinese Communist Party's fifth-ranked official, visited Pyongyang and held talks with the North's leader.

But the prospect for Pyongyang-Beijing ties has become murky since the North's all-female propaganda group Moranbong Band abruptly canceled its scheduled concert in Beijing on Dec. 12 hours before it was supposed to begin.

"As Kim had effectively handled external affairs at the party, there is the high possibility that an improvement in the North's ties with China would take time," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.


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