Seoul: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un`s "most trustworthy" aide who oversaw ties with the South has died in a traffic accident, Pyongyang`s state media said on Wednesday, a loss seen as a blow to efforts at reconciliation between the two rivals.
Kim has earned a reputation for ruthlessness after eliminating previous high-ranking officials including his uncle but the announcement of a state funeral for Kim Yang-Gon appears to indicate his death was not part of a fresh purge.
Kim Yang-Gon, who was a secretary of the ruling Workers` Party, "died in a traffic accident at 6:15 am Tuesday at age 73," the Korean Central News Agency said, without giving further details of the incident.
He served three generations of the Kim dynasty which has ruled the North for more than six decades with an iron fist and no tolerance for dissent.
KCNA hailed him as "the dearest and the most trustworthy comrade-in-arms" of current leader Kim Jong-Un, who will head a state funeral for the official on Thursday.
His death was a "great loss" for the party and the people, KCNA said, praising him for his "admirable loyalty and competence".
A career diplomat, Kim Yang-Gon played a leading role in realising the 2007 summit between Kim Jong-Il and South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun and was the only North Korean official present at their meeting in Pyongyang.
After the sudden death of Kim Jong-Il in 2011, Kim Yang-Gon was known as a key confidante to his son, the young leader Kim Jong-Un, advising him on inter-Korean and international relations. Most recently, he took part in talks in August to defuse tensions with South Korea over a border land mine bast blamed on the North which brought the two sides to the brink of war.
The two sides also vowed to make efforts to promote inter-Korean civilian exchanges.
But subsequent talks this month ended with little progress in resolving issues such as that of families separated by the division of the Korean peninsula and the 1950-53 Korean War and the resumption of cross-border tours to the North`s scenic Mount Kumgang.
Kim`s death is widely seen as a blow to efforts at dialogue and reconciliation.
"This is going to deliver negative impacts on inter-Korean relations", professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told AFP.
"In light of the North`s nature, I don`t see anyone who can replace him in his role in daring offer policy ideas and advice to the leader in these fields", he said.
Professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongguk University said Kim Yang-Gon had an image as a "moderate".
"His death may cause difficulties to keeping up the momentum for dialogue" between the two Koreas, he said.
News of Kim Yang-Gon`s death sparked speculation that his sudden demise might be the result of political foul play, South Korea`s Yonhap news agency said.
Some of the North`s most promising party leaders have died in traffic accidents.
Kim Yang-Gon`s predecessor Kim Yong-Sun, who helped arrange the landmark summit between South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il, also perished in a traffic accident in 2003.
Ri Je-Gang, a top party official in charge of assigning official posts to party members, died in a car crash in 2010 when he was rumoured to be involved in a power struggle with Jang Song-Thaek, the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-Il.
Jang himself survived a car accident in 2006 but was executed in 2013 by his nephew, new leader Kim Jong-Un after being condemned as a "traitor" to the nation.
Yonhap said the partying habits of North Korean elite were also to blame for their disproportionately high rate of fatal traffic accidents, often driving home drunk after exclusive parties.