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Meet the North Korean spymaster laying the ground work for the upcoming summit with the US

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WASHINGTON (Circa) -- There are plenty of diplomats, ambassadors, and government officials working behind the scenes in preparation for the upcoming summit between the U.S. and North Korea, but the man taking the lead for the Kim regime is a former military spymaster with quite a colorful record.

Kim Yong-chol will be representing the Kim regime at a planning in New York city, President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. Trump had hinted over the weekend that such a meeting would be taking place, but did not initially say where. The president seemed pleased that Kim, who currently serves as the vice chairman of North Korea's Worker's Party, would be attending the meeting.

"Solid response to my letter, thank you," said Trump.

The president's enthusiasm stands in stark contrast to his decision to cancel the summit on Thursday. The White House released a strongly-worded letter admonishing the North Korean government for its "tremendous anger and open hostility" displayed in an earlier statement, but it also left the door open for future talks. It's unclear if Kim's visit was a direct result of the letter, but what is known is that he is hardly a traditional diplomat.

Like many North Koreans both past and present, Kim Yong-chol started his career in the military. He was part of a unit responsible for guarding the demilitarized zone in the 1960s, less than a decade after it had been created in the remnants of the Korean War. Kim worked his way up through the ranks of the military, holding various positions near the DMZ and a stint as a bodyguard to former leader Kim Jong-il.

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Kim Yong-chol (left) sits in on a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his sister, Kim Yo-jong. Source: KCNA

Kim has been a public figure throughout his career, despite becoming the country's spy chief in 2009. He entered politics in 1998 as a delegate to the Supreme People's Assembly, North Korea's legislature which serves a more ceremonial role than a practical one. Operating in this dual political-military role has kept Kim in the circle of North Korea's most powerful figures, which has in turn given him significant influence in dealings with South Korea. Historically, that influence has hardly been diplomatic. Kim is reportedly responsible for the rapid expansion of North Korea's cyber capabilities, and is believed to be the mastermind behind the Sony Pictures hack in 2014. While North Korea did not claim responsibility, the attack is widely believed to be a response to a Sony Pictures film which includes a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Several other aggressive covert and not-so-covert activities also have Kim Yong-chol's fingerprints on them, including the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010.

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Kim transitioned permanently to politics after retiring from the military in 2016. He has held various political posts since then, including chief of the United Front Department, a dual-purpose civilian intelligence agency and foreign ministry tasked with handling relations with South Korea. Kim has also become a face of the regime recently, having attended the closing ceremony of the Olympic Winter games earlier this year. A controversial decision on the part of North Korea, given the former general's past.

Kim will likely play a significant role in the upcoming summit with the U.S. in June, but despite all the ground work being laid, an official confirmation from the White House has yet to be released as of the publishing of this article.

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