SEOUL (Reuters) - The new face of North Korea’s military threat to the United States is a man who once disarmed his opponents by narrating sections of his favorite South Korean soap operas during tense negotiations.
Even as he delivered North Korea’s message on Tuesday terminating its armistice with the United States that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, General Kim Yong-chol opted for measured tones rather than the usual harsh rhetoric that characterizes announcements from Pyongyang.
Yet behind the calm demeanor of the four-star general is a man believed to have masterminded the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors, according to officials and experts who study the North.
Seen as a hardliner, Kim is believed to have also had a hand in the shelling of a South Korean island in the same year that killed two civilians, the first such deaths on Korean soil in 24 years, and in the hacking of a South Korean bank.
Kim heads North Korea’s “Reconnaissance General Bureau”, the agency that leads intelligence operations in the South.
“The message behind putting somebody like Kim up there to make that statement is clearly to escalate tensions,” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute of Defence Analyses, a government-affiliated think tank in Seoul.
Kim, born in 1945, has had spells in intelligence and in special forces. He met many times with his South Korean counterparts at talks in the early 2000s when relations between the two Koreas thawed and Washington and Pyongyang negotiated over the North’s nuclear program.
It was at those meetings, according to people who were present, that he revealed his penchant for South Korean soap operas, banned for the most part in North Korea but nonetheless a staple of escapism for many in the isolated and impoverished country.
Sitting at military talks in 2007 at the truce village straddling the rival Koreas’ heavily armed border, Kim baffled those at the table by using most of his opening remarks to talk about a South Korean soap opera he had recently seen.
When he wrapped up the tale, the message became clear. He wanted to emphasize the importance of communications as a way to build confidence and improve relationships, even between those who are as close as family or compatriots.
That is the way North Korea views the division of the peninsula, a family torn apart thanks to the presence of “foreign” or U.S. forces.
While Kim Yong-chol’s tone was milder than many of the propaganda broadcasts from North Korea and read in Korean, there was no mistaking the message.
The general was a trusted military aide to the North’s previous leader Kim Jong-il who died in 2011 and is a close confidant of its 30-year old new ruler, Kim Jong-un, although he had been reported to have been demoted in a purge last year.
In just over a year in power the young Kim appears to have pursued an even harder and more military line than his father, who ruled for 17 years.
There have been two rocket launches, both outlawed by U.N. sanctions and one nuclear test, the country’s third and most powerful to date.
Despite imminent new sanctions from the U.N. Security Council, Kim Jong-un appears ready to push ahead with more nuclear tests, according to people familiar with North Korea’s thinking.
In the meantime, the soap-opera loving general is an ideal choice as the face of a leadership unwilling to compromise on its nuclear weapons plans.
In 2008, while visiting the border city of Kaesong where South Korean firms use North Korean labour to make household goods, he quoted from another TV drama produced in the South to criticize the government in Seoul under then President Lee Myung-bak, who had taken a tough stance toward Pyongyang.
Warning that Lee would soon lose domestic political backing for mismanaging public sentiment, he used the analogy of a ship that sinks in turbulent waters.
“The people are the water and the ruler is the boat,” he said, without any apparent ironic reference to North Korea, the world’s only hereditary “Stalinist” monarchy and personality cult centered around three generations of the ruling Kim family.
Editing by Dean Yates