Kim Yong-chol arrived in New York from Pyongyang via a flight from Beijing on Wednesday afternoon. He then made his way to a hotel in midtown Manhattan and, later that evening, to an apartment near the United Nations headquarters, where the North Korean pol had dinner with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The two are apparently laying the groundwork for the off-again, on-again summit between their bosses, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, that may or may not take place in Singapore on June 12.
Good working dinner with Kim Yong Chol in New York tonight. Steak, corn, and cheese on the menu. pic.twitter.com/1pu4K3oym7
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) May 31, 2018
The ease with which Kim—no relation to his boss—made his way to and through New York City stands in stark contrast to his last big diplomatic photo-op. I remember it well, because my much-anticipated tour of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea was abbreviated because of it. En route to the DMZ, my guide bus had to take a detour and forgo part of the excursion because of roads closed shortly before Kim headed south to represent North Korea at the closing ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. It wasn’t that roads were closed to let Kim through—quite the contrary. Protesters blocked the way with their parked cars, hoping to keep Kim from getting any further than the border. My guide, who had led more than 500 tours, had never seen so many cars. Reporters also dotted the scene. But it was all in vain: Kim got into South Korea via an alternate route. The guide presciently declared, “A lot of people are not happy to have Kim Yong-chol in this land. So there will be even stronger protests later this afternoon.”
South Koreans know Kim Yong-chol rather better than Americans do. Reuters headlined a story about his visit today “North Korea’s toughest negotiator heads to New York” and stated he faced U.S. sanctions “for supporting the north’s weapons program.” There’s rather more to the story than that. He was sanctioned in 2015 for his role in the infamous cyber-attack the previous year against Sony, whose James Franco-Seth Rogen film The Interview should be required watching for Trump, Pompeo, and the rest of the band. And he was sanctioned in 2010 for a far more nefarious deed: as head of intelligence, Kim is believed to be responsible for the torpedoing that year of the South Korean ship the Cheonan, which resulted in the deaths of 46 sailors.
It’s this last action that South Koreans were protesting during the February Olympics. They couldn’t quite believe that their nation had waived sanctions to allow the entry of the man who is said to have masterminded the murders of dozens of their countrymen. Kim Jong-un sent a rather controversial choice of representative at a sensitive moment. Kim Yong-chol was for years the country’s head of intelligence and he is now the head of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s United Front Department. This organization, in a country of one-party, one-man rule, is tasked with inter-Korean relations in addition to some intelligence functions. A U.S. Forces Korea official in Seoul told me in February that Kim Jong-un knew when he made Kim Yong-chol head of this group that one day the man supposedly responsible for killing dozens of South Koreans would go to that country as an emissary of his regime. It’s the sort of disgustingly diabolical diplomacy only a dictator could contrive.
Kim Yong-chol arrived in the United States to much less hoopla. And the American media, on the whole, didn’t go into the specifics of his background—or his butchery—in reporting news of the visit. The few stories that mentioned the Cheonan attack did so briefly, usually toward the end. I suppose it’s more than they did the last time a foreigner with blood on his hands came to New York claiming to be seeking peace.