SEOUL, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- A state funeral was held for North Korean politician Kim Yang Gon in Pyongyang, where Kim Jong Un delivered a eulogy to his "closest comrade." But the event also was marked by the continued absence of Choe Ryong Hae, an official purged in early November.
Pyongyang's KCNA reported on the funeral Thursday, and described Kim Yang Gon as a "faithful revolutionary fighter" and as Kim Jong Un's "closest comrade." KCNA said Kim Jong Un was swept up in deep sorrow after the loss of a "reliable revolutionary."
In attendance at the funeral was North Korea's top brass: Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea; Hwang Pyong So, North Korea's No. 1 political officer for the Korean People's Army; and Pak Pong Ju, North Korea's interior prime minister, Yonhap reported. Workers' Party Secretary Choe Ryong Hae remained missing, although he was included on a list of names for a state funeral committee.
South Korean news network YTN reported Kim Yang Gon's sudden death has ignited speculation of foul play.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean studies, said Kim's death could have been made to appear as a car accident.
"As [Kim Yang Gon] came into the spotlight as a prominent member of Kim Jong Un's entourage, and if he became the object of jealousy among rivals, one cannot rule out the possibility the car accident was framed," Yang told YTN.
But a South Korean government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said it is likely Kim Yang Gon died in a genuine car accident, and that the crash could have happened on a long dark road in the early morning hours that involved a collision with a heavy North Korean military truck.
Despite the recent setbacks, North Korea is going ahead with plans for major changes in 2016.
Cheong Seong-jang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, told Yonhap Kim Jong Un plans to replace much of the Communist Party Congress.
He is outgrowing his father Kim Jong Il's advisers and wants more loyal officials in his entourage, Cheong said.