SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea's top official in charge of relations with South Korea has died in a traffic accident, the country's state media announced Wednesday, potentially dimming the prospect for ties between the rival countries.
Kim Yang Gon, 73, head of the United Front Department at the ruling Workers' Party, died Tuesday morning, the Korean Central News Agency reported. It said a state funeral will be held Thursday.
While North Korea's road conditions are poor, the lack of detail helped feed speculation in South Korean media that Kim's death was suspicious. Similar speculation arose in past years following reported traffic deaths of high-level North Korean officials. It's almost impossible to verify what is happening among the North's secretive ruling elite.
Before his death, there had been no signs that Kim Yang Gon was engaged in any major factional feuding with other officials. He was among officials who most frequently accompanied Kim Jong Un during his inspection visits to army units and factories, a strong indication that he was one of the leader's trusted aides.
Wednesday's KCNA dispatch described him as the leader's "closest comrade-in-arms and steadfast revolutionary comrade" who had made "dedicated" efforts to push for unification with South Korea.
Analysts in Seoul say strained ties between the rival Koreas could continue following the unexpected death of Kim, who had long handled relations with South Korea. KCNA did not say who would replace him. Earlier this month, the rival Koreas ended rare high-level talks without any agreement.
"I worry that we cannot avoid long suspension of a dialogue between South and North Korea" following Kim's death, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
In August, Kim Yang Gon attended marathon talks at the Korean border that defused a military standoff triggered by land-mine explosions blamed on North Korea that maimed two South Korean soldiers.