North Korean leader Kim Jong-il will have to sack the head of the regime's operations against South Korea to show it is "sincere" about improving cross-border relations, a government official here said Monday.
The official was referring to Kim Yong-chol, director of the North's Reconnaissance Bureau. Kim is believed to have masterminded last year's attacks against the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeaonpyeong Island.
He is also believed to be behind the hacking of agricultural lender Nonghyup. The government believes that as long as he remains close to Kim Jong-il (no relation) and his heir apparent Jong-un, inter-Korean relations cannot improve. Kim Yong-chol was only recently elected to the Workers Party's Central Military Commission, whose vice chairman is now Kim junior.
According to a well-informed source, Kim Yong-chol is concerned about what would happen to his position if inter-Korean relations were to improve. South Korean intelligence believes it was Kim Yong-chol who caused a fracas at an inter-Korean military meeting in February, and ordered secret contacts between the two Koreas in May to be revealed on June 1.
The source said that Kim Yong-chol wields much influence over Kim Jong-un as he tutored the dynastic son in military lore while Kim junior was at Kim Il Sung Military University. Rumors have it that Kim Yong-chol boasted to fellow officials that he "brought up" Kim Jong-un.
Another government official said Kim Yong-chol's arrogance makes him unpopular within the regime. Senior military figures like Kim Yong-chun and O Kuk-ryol have openly criticized him for crippling the country to flatter Kim Jong-un. Even vice marshal Ri Yong-ho and Kim Jong-gak, the first deputy chief of the General Political Bureau, who belong to the same group of patrons of Kim Jong-un, are concerned about Kim Yong-chol's growing influence.
The official added that officials in North Korea's Foreign Ministry and the United Front Department are saying the North can only make progress if Kim Yong-chol steps down. They say he only cares about furthering his own interests, according to the official.
A government source said, "As long as Kim Yong-chol exerts influence over both Kim senior and junior, it is unlikely that recent talks on the North's nuclear issue and foreign ministerial talks will lead to an easing of inter-Korean relations." Some pundits even predict that Kim Yong-chol can push for further provocations if the two Koreas try to engage in dialogue in earnest.
One intelligence officer said, "The Reconnaissance Bureau could try to destroy infrastructure in South Korea through spies in the South, or carry out terrorist attacks on North Korean defectors campaigning against the dictatorial regime in the South. It is also possible that the North will carry out another massive cyber attack."
Another intelligence officer said that given Kim Yong-chol's "violent and reckless nature," if he sees himself on the verge of being purged, he might resort to extreme measures such as a coup d'état.