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Who Is North Korean Diplomat Kim Yong-Chol?


We want to take a closer look now at the man who met with President Trump today - Kim Yong Chol. For that, we are joined by Jean Lee, who opened the Pyongyang bureau of The Associated Press and who is now at the Wilson Center. Welcome, Jean Lee, to our studio.

JEAN LEE: Great. Glad to be here.

KELLY: So I have seen Kim Yong Chol referred to - we just called him the top negotiator. I've seen him referred to as the former spy chief, as a diplomat. I noticed the BBC just had a profile of him calling him Kim Jong Un's right-hand man. Who is he?

LEE: All of those titles apply.

KELLY: That's a whole lot of titles.

LEE: Exactly. We should remember, though, that even though he's here as Kim Jong Un's chief envoy, he is a man with an intelligence background, a military background and wears many, many different hats inside North Korea. But one thing that I pay attention to is the bulk of his career has been in intelligence and in the military and overseeing some of the strategy related to reunifying the Korean Peninsula. And when I see Kim Yong Chol, it brings to mind that he has a certain mission, and that is probably to really press the point that North Korea wants to have some sort of discussion about this peace declaration.

KELLY: This is something North Korea really wants - to formally end the Korean War.

LEE: Exactly. And there are several different reasons for that. I do think that Kim Jong Un does need to tell his people that they are ready to move past this Korean War that has been unresolved since 1953. Remember that they signed a cease-fire with the United States and the United Nations.

And that ideology of the Korean War being a central fight and focus for the North Korean people has been such a preoccupation. And I do think that he wants to move past that. And it's a way to perhaps decouple the U.S.-South Korean alliance. And so there are pros and cons to whether this is a good idea. But I do think he has multiple reasons for why he wants to move past this and turn his attention to North Korea's economy.

KELLY: To pick up on something else you just said, his intelligence background. This is a guy with military intelligence in his background. He was director until fairly recently of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, North Korea's spy agency. Which struck me, how remarkable is that to have a North Korean spy sitting down with the president in the Oval Office of the White House?

LEE: Absolutely. And he oversaw some extremely destabilizing incidents, including the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, that killed 46 South Korean sailors and really compelled South Korea to institute what are the toughest bilateral South Korean sanctions on North Korea, the May 10 sanctions. And, of course, some of the cyber warfare that I think is a very dangerous arm of North Korea's asymmetrical military tactics.

KELLY: There were reports that he was involved with the hacking of Sony Pictures.

LEE: He certainly would have been aware and overseen elements of that operation. But we could also point out that we too have a former spymaster, Mike Pompeo...

KELLY: Who was at the table today. Fair point, indeed. You do know whether he is actually empowered to speak for Kim Jong Un? How close are these two, do we know?

LEE: Oh, he certainly does go way back with Kim Jong Un. He has close ties to the Kim family. I think, you know, I also think of him as somebody who's tough. And in my dealings with the North Koreans, there was always somebody I called the bulldog. There was somebody who was charming, and there was always a bulldog. He's the bulldog in this equation. He's the tough guy.

And it's interesting because obviously he is - the one thing we didn't mention is that - his diplomacy background. He is not a diplomat. And certainly we have other people that we've been dealing with who are very seasoned, very worldly - he is not.

KELLY: Well, he certainly extracted something that North Korea wants today, which is a second sit-down between President Trump and Kim Jong Un that appears to be on. Just briefly in the moments we have left, how much of a victory is that for North Korea?

LEE: Is it a victory. Of course, another summit would help propel this process and give Kim Jong Un another opportunity for that kind of propaganda and the legitimacy that he craves and the chance to really move this process forward. But the challenge - what I'm focused on is more that the challenge lies for the working-level group, for the working - the negotiators to nail down that road map that we heard earlier. That's the challenge.

KELLY: We will see what happens there. Jean Lee, North Korea expert with the Wilson Center. Thanks so much.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.