Traffic accidents aren't a common cause of death in North Korea—unless you happen to be chief of the United Front Department tasked with improving relations with the South. According to state media in Pyongyang, Kim Yang Gon, the 73-year-old department chief, died in a traffic accident early Tuesday, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will preside over his funeral on Thursday. Han Park, a professor of international relations at the University of Georgia, tells CNN that car crashes are very rare in North Korea and the negotiator's death looks suspicious. "His predecessor in the same position died in a car accident," Han says. "I'm puzzled. I'm extremely puzzled."
Kim—described by state media as the leader's "closest comrade-in-arms and steadfast revolutionary comrade"—was chief of a delegation that helped pull the Koreas back from the brink of armed confrontation in August and played a major role in organizing earlier summits, the BBC reports. Pyongyang watchers note that North Korea hasn't named a successor and predict that whatever the circumstances of Kim's death, dialogue between North Korea and South Korea will probably now be suspended and relations will remain tense. (Analysts say North Korea's Red Star OS is the "wet dream of a surveillance state dictator.")