North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam is a career diplomat whose unquestioning loyalty has ensured his survival for decades in the regime’s top ranks.
Kim, who turns 90 this month, has served the North’s ruling Kim family for three generations, despite periodic purges of the Workers’ Party.
Leader Kim Jong Un had his own uncle executed for treason two years after coming to power, and his half-brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in a Malaysian airport last year, but Kim Yong Nam — who is not a close blood relative of the ruling family — has always survived.
Analysts ascribe his longevity to his suave manner and reliable devotion.
“He has never been considered a threat to the regime,” said professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies. “He is an amiable technocrat who faithfully follows the leader’s directions,” he told AFP.
South Korean analysts have nicknamed him “Tape Recorder”, he added, “as he always parrots what has been said by the supreme leader”.
Kim Yong Nam arrived in the South Friday for a three-day visit, at the head of the North’s diplomatic delegation to the Winter Olympics, accompanied by leader Kim’s sister, two other senior other officials, and 18 support staff.
As president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubberstamp parliament, he is the country’s ceremonial head of state and technically the highest-level Northern official ever to visit the South. But he is largely considered a figurehead whose public diplomatic role, representing the country at international events, leaves it unclear how much political power he really has.
He issues letters of credit for North Korean diplomats and receives foreign representatives, but Kim Jong Un holds the real authority as the Supreme Leader and head of the Workers’ Party.
Kim Yong Nam’s diplomatic roles were especially convenient for the current leader’s late father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who was known for a propensity to avoid contact with foreign guests, according to analysts.
Published in Daily Times, February 10th 2018.