North Korea's 'Tape Recorder' head of state has served three generations of Kim dynasty

Kim Yong Nam (centre), president of the Presidium of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, during the summit session of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, Iran, on Aug 30, 2012.
Kim Yong Nam (centre), president of the Presidium of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, during the summit session of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, Iran, on Aug 30, 2012.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (AFP) - 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 Kim Yo Jong, 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.

"He is not a politician but a typical technocrat who has spent decades handling international relations," said Yang.

But he pointed out that whenever the North's state media reel off the names of officials who attend ceremonies, "Kim Yong Nam's name always comes next after that of Kim Jong Un." "This means he is the number-two in the official party ranks," he added.


According to the South's Unification Ministry, Kim Yong Nam was born in February 1928 in Pyongyang.

He studied at the North's prestigious Kim Il Sung University before graduating from Moscow University in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in international relations.

He was recruited into the international affairs department of the party's Central Committee, where he started moving up the career ladder, becoming its head in 1972.

He has spent his entire career in Pyongyang, and in 1983 the North's founder Kim Il Sung named him as foreign minister.

Under Kim's son and successor Kim Jong Il he was elevated to his current position in 1998.

As the head of state, he took part in both North-South summits in Pyongyang, meeting South Korean president Kim Dae Jung in 2000 and his successor Roh Moo Hyun seven years later.

He met his third South Korean president, Moon Jae In, at leaders' reception in Pyeongchang Friday ahead of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

It is also his third Games - he led the North's delegations to Beijing in 2008 and Sochi four years ago.