General Kim Yong-chol will head North Korea’s delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics closing ceremony on 25 February.
He is a controversial figure – and his upcoming visit has been met with hostility in South Korea.
During his time as military intelligence chief, Gen Kim was accused of masterminding attacks on the South Korea warship Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
He was also linked to a cyber-attack on Sony Pictures in 2014 in a bid to block the release of The Interview, a comedy film based on the North Korean regime.
North Korea flatly denies any involvement in the torpedoing of the Cheonan, in which 46 seamen were killed.
Kim Yong-chol, 72, rose to prominence as Pyongyang’s chief military negotiator during inter-Korean talks, between 2006 and 2008.
He later served as the director of the General Reconnaissance Bureau, tasked with cyber-warfare and gathering foreign intelligence, from 2009 to 2016.
In 2016, he took charge of the United Front Department, the civilian intelligence agency which supposedly operates pro-North Korean groups in South Korea and handles inter-Korean affairs.
Soon after this appointment, however, he was reportedly sent for “ideological re-education” as punishment for an “overbearing attitude”, according to South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo.
He retained his posts despite the punishment, and his nomination as head of the Olympics delegation indicates that he remains a senior figure in North Korea.
Gen Kim has a reputation for being difficult to work with and being sarcastic, website North Korea Leadership Watch reports.
During talks with South Korea in 2007, he reportedly rejected an offer from the South by saying: “Do you have another briefcase with you? Maybe you have another briefcase of proposals.”
Washington imposed sanctions on Gen Kim in 2010 and 2015, and Seoul did the same in 2016.
However, South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon has clarified that there are no restrictions on his travel to the Olympics.
Gen Kim’s alleged role in past attacks has led to protests from conservative forces in South Korea.
“We absolutely oppose a visit to the South by Kim Yong-chol, the main culprit of the Cheonan’s sinking,” said Kim Sung-tae, floor leader of the opposition Liberty Korea Party. The party’s statement also said that Kim Yong-chol deserved “death by beating” and called on the government to block the visit.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, however, said that “there is a limitation in pinpointing who was responsible for the [Cheonan] incident”, despite the fact Gen Kim led the reconnaissance bureau at the time.
Despite conservative protests, the South Korean government has welcomed his visit amid improving inter-Korean relations and hopes for an Olympics-inspired detente.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to meet the delegation during the visit, but talks between Gen Kim and US representatives remain highly unlikely.