Asia Pacific / Politics

North Korea ditches top diplomat in reshuffle that could impact nuclear talks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea has ditched its foreign minister and shuffled other key posts in an apparent major shift that could significantly impact the country’s diplomatic stance after 18 months of nuclear talks with the U.S.

The North notified foreign ambassadors based in Pyongyang of its recent appointment of Ri Son Gwon as foreign minister, the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted unidentified sources as saying Sunday. The sources said the notification was made late last week, it said.

The decision means Ri Yong Ho, a veteran diplomat who had served as foreign minister since 2016, has been replaced with Ri Son Gwon, the now-former chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which handles inter-Korean relations.

Ri Yong Ho, who served as the North’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 2003 to 2007, speaks fluent English and also has years of experience as a leading nuclear negotiator with the United States.

He served as the country’s top diplomat as Pyongyang embarked on a series of unprecedented diplomatic initiatives, accompanying leader Kim Jong Un during summits with U.S., South Korean, Russian and Chinese leaders over the last two years.

He also had a visible role as a top spokesperson, holding a news conference after leader Kim Jong Un’s second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump collapsed in Hanoi last February.

The move was first reported by the Seoul-based NK News website, but there has been no mention in official North Korean media. The NK News report said it was part of a major political reshuffle, and would likely be confirmed on or before Thursday, when an event for resident diplomats is scheduled in Pyongyang.

Ri Su Yong, another former North Korean foreign minister and vice chairman of the ruling party’s powerful Central Committee, as well as four others also appear to have been replaced at a recent plenary party meeting, a report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency showed late Saturday.

Ri was a classmate of late leader Kim Jong Il. He served as the North’s representative to the U.N. mission in Geneva and ambassador to Switzerland during the 1980s, Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership and a fellow at the U.S-based Stimson Center, wrote on the North Korean-watching 38 North blog in 2014. He is a surrogate father and mentor to current leader Kim Jong Un and handled a number of personal and financial issues for Kim Jong Il.

On Jan. 1, the North announced a major party personnel reshuffle as part of a KCNA summary of a four-day plenary meeting of the Central Committee. However, a list of those who were dismissed in the reshuffle was not released.

But details appeared to come to light with the KCNA report from Saturday on the membership of the 70-strong funeral ceremony committee for one of the country’s independence fighters and national heroes.

According to that report, five of the party’s Central Committee’s 12 vice chairmen, including Ri Su Yong, were not among the 70, an indication that they did not retain their seats.

The fate of Ri Su Yong and the four other vice chairmen had been in question after they failed to appear during a photo session at the Dec. 31 conclusion of the four-day party meeting.

It’s unclear what the shift portends, but Kim, in his speech before the Central Committee plenary meeting, vowed to “strengthen the Party, the General Staff of the revolution, and radically enhance its leadership role,” according to KCNA’s summary of the speech. Kim, the summary said, stressed “that the basic idea, the basic spirit, of the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the WPK is to conduct the offensive for a breakthrough head-on, not to wait for the situation to turn better,” in an apparent reference to stalled denuclearization talks with the United States.

White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in an interview last week that the United States has attempted to contact North Korea in a bid to restart deadlocked nuclear talks.

Trump has appeared unconcerned that the talks — and Kim’s moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests — could be doomed, repeatedly touting his excellent relationship with the North Korean leader and even saying the two had “fallen in love.”

But Trump’s personal relationship with Kim may not be enough to salvage the stalled nuclear talks, Kim Kye Gwan, a senior North Korean official who is an adviser to the North’s Foreign Ministry, said earlier this month, warning that it will return to nuclear talks only when Washington fully accepts its opaque demands.

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