Kim Yong Chol, one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s top officials, is traveling to the United States on a flight from Beijing, due to arrive early Wednesday.
Trump confirmed the news of Kim Yong Chol’s trip to the US early Tuesday, tweeting: “We have put a great team together for our talks with North Korea. Meetings are currently taking place concerning Summit, and more. Kim Young Chol, the Vice Chairman of North Korea, heading now to New York. Solid response to my letter, thank you!”
Chol will be the most “senior official to visit the United States since 2000, when Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok traveled to Washington to meet with former US President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office,” according to CNN.
The two countries are still attempting to lay the groundwork for on-again, off-again talks between Kim and President Trump in Singapore on June 12.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Chol’s Will Be the Most Senior North Korean Official to Visit the United States in 18 Years
2. As the Vice-Chairman of the Workers’ Party, Chol has a Long History with North Korean Military Work and is North Korea’s Key Military Strategist
Chol is officially vice-chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s very powerful Workers’ Party. Chol is the former head of the General Reconnaissance Bureau intelligence agency, he is the Stalinist regime’s spy chief and a key strategist to North Korea, according to TIME.
“Since denuclearization is the core issue of recent inter-Korea and Sino-North Korea summits, Kim Jong Un always has Kim Yong Chol at his side, as he is a savvy operator regarding nuclear and military affairs,” Cheong Seong-chang of the South Korea’s Sejong Institute tells TIME.
Chol has a long history of military work, dating back to 1962 when he served in the 15th Division, a civil police company guarding the Korean Demilitarized Zone. In 1968 he was appointed liaison officer to the United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission, Korea and in 1976 he was promoted to division commander of the Supreme Guard Command. He was again promoted in 1990 to Major General and became deputy director of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and director of the MPAF Reconnaissance Bureau. In 1998 he was elected as a deputy to the 10th Supreme People’s Assembly and again in 2003 to the 11th.
In 2009, he was appointed director of the Reconnaissance General Bureau and Vice-Chief of the General Staff Department of the Korean People’s Army. He also elected as a deputy to the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly. In 2010 he was promoted to Colonel-General and elected to the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the 6th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Chol was briefly demoted to Colonel-General and then reinstated as a four-star general in 2012.
3. Chol is Accused of Sinking the South Korean Navy Ship “Cheonan” in 2010, Killing 46 Sailors on Board
Born in 1946, Chol has a long history of controversy on top of his military service. South Korea blames Kim Yong Chol for sinking its navy ship called the Cheonan in 2010, and angry relatives of the 46 sailors killed protested when he came to South Korea as the North’s envoy to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February.
“Execute Kim Yong Chol,” chanted family members of the deceased Cheonan sailors at a protest during the Olympics, brandishing portraits of Kim marked out with a red cross. South Korea’s Liberty Party even released a statement at the time that said Kim Yong Chol deserved “death by beating,” according to TIME.
North Korea has consistently denied responsibility for sinking the Cheonan over the years, although there are few other explanations as to what sunk the ship. He also allegedly had a hand in North Korea’s deadly shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island six months later, TIME reports.
Chol also has a reputation for being unreasonable and malicious. During inter-Korea talks in 2007, he rejected an offer from Seoul by saying, “Do you have another briefcase with you? Maybe you have another briefcase of proposals,” reports North Korea Leadership Watch.
4. Chol is Close to Members of the North Korean Dynasty, Serving as a Body Guard to Kim Jong Un’s Father and Fostering a Close Relationship with Kim Jong Un’s Mother
Chol had a close relationship with former regime leader and father to the current Kim Kim Jong Il, serving as his body guard. According to TIME, he was also close with other members of the dynasty, including Kim Jong Un’s mother, Ko Yong Hui.
“Chol oversaw the expansion of North Korea’s cyber and electronic warfare while at the General Reconnaissance Bureau, including reportedly overseeing the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures over the spoof film The Interview, which lampoons the Kim clan,” according to TIME. “As tough new U.N. sanctions cut off traditional revenue sources, the regime has put much more effort into lucrative cybercrime. Kim Yong Chol’s burgeoning profile may be linked to his success plugging the gap.”
He was on both Kim Jong Un’s trips to China, sat beside the North Korean leader during his meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and held meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang to discuss the stalled U.S.-North Korea summit set for Singapore on June 12.
5. Chol’s Alleged Visit Comes Days After a Controversial Back-and-Forth Between the US and North Korea Over the Cancelled Upcoming Diplomatic Summit in Singapore
Trump announced in a letter released by the White House Thursday morning that he will not be meeting with Kim Jong Un next month for the scheduled summit after foreign policy adviser John Bolton invoked the example of the deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhaffi to illustrate the consequences for Kim Jong Un if North Korea refused to cooperate with the United States.
“This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Vice President Mike Pence said in an interview with Fox News, adding that his statement was “more of a fact” than a threat.