Top North Korean Aide Dies in Car Crash: Reports

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Kim Yang Gon gets into a car upon near the truce village of Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, on November 29, 2007. Kim, a top official in North Korea responsible for the country's relations with South Korea, was killed in a car crash on Tuesday morning, North Korean state media reported. Han Jae-Ho/Reuters

A senior North Korean official died in a car crash on Tuesday, according to state media, the latest death of a high-ranking figure in the hermit kingdom this year.

Kim Yang Gon, who was head of North Korea's United Front Department and in charge of strained relations with South Korea, died in a road accident on Tuesday morning, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Wednesday. He was 73 years old and was described by KCNA as a "revolutionary soldier" and a "steadfast revolutionary comrade."

He will receive a state funeral, and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will head the funeral committee, KCNA reported. Kim Yang Gon was last seen in state media on December 1, NK News, a website providing news and analysis on North Korea, reported.

Kim Yang Gon's death comes at the end of a year that has seen a number of top-ranking North Korean officials disappear or be executed, though the fact he was lauded in state media and will get a state funeral would suggest it may indeed have been accidental. Yonhap reports that around 70 North Korean officials have been executed since Kim Jong-un took office in April 2012 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Earlier this year, Yonhap reported that several North Korean officials were fleeing the country amid ongoing executions and Kim Jong Un's "reign of terror."

Reports in May said that North Korean defense minister Hyon Yong Chol was publicly executed, possibly by an anti-aircraft gun, on April 30 for disloyalty to Kim Jong Un. Hyon's death came several weeks after 15 senior North Korean officials were executed.

Human Rights Watch describes North Korea as "among the most harshly repressive countries in the world." North Korea has no independent press or religious freedom and its citizens face rape, torture, forced labor and imprisonment and execution. The country faced its worst drought in a century earlier this year, which risked plunging it into another famine; a famine killed between 600,000 and 2.5 million people in the mid-1990s. Around 70 percent of North Koreans, or 18 million people, face food insecurity, according to a World Food Program report published earlier this year.

Last year, it was widely reported that Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was executed in a bizarre and cruel manner by being fed to a pack of 120 wild, hungry dogs. While the stories about the method of killing turned out to be false, he was executed by being shot to death for committing "tremendous crimes against the government," according to a North Korean diplomat. There were also reports that his entire family perished along with him.

Following Kim Yang Gon's death, North Korean media published a list of people who will attend his funeral. A surprising name on the list is Choe Ryong Hae, the former vice premier of North Korea who disappeared from public view earlier this year and was widely reported to have been executed. However, South Korean lawmakers heard from the country's spy agency last month that Choe had instead been sent for "re-education" at a collective farm in North Korea.