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Though signaling a tougher stance, North Korea’s new hawkish foreign minister is not expected to play a decisive role in US relations

By NewsChina Updated Apr.1

On January 23, Ri Son-gwon formally appeared as North Korea’s new foreign minister at an official lunar new year banquet. With embassy delegates and representatives of international organizations in attendance, the ex-army officer revealed North Korea’s new foreign policy, reported the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).  


But Ri is not a new face in diplomacy. He has long been involved in negotiations with South Korea, particularly on reunification. In August 2018 during dialogues between North Korea, South Korea and the US, Ri met with ambassadors from Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia in Pyongyang. Six months later, the second summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Vietnam ended without a deal. Since then, Ri, who had previously met with South Korean officials in the Demilitarized Zone at the truce village of Panmunjom, has seemingly been absent from foreign affairs until his appointment as foreign minister.  


Kim Jong-un declared “the world would witness North Korea’s new strategic weapon in the near future” during a session of the 5th plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang from December 28 to 31, 2019, KCNA reported on January 1. North Korea also stated in a communique issued at the meeting that it would not be bound to the protocols it signed with the US, showing a tough and reluctant attitude toward resuming talks.  


US media has described North Korea’s replacement of pro-engagement minister Ri Yong-ho with a hawkish military veteran who has little experience in dealing with US officials as demonstrating a tougher stance toward the US. But many analysts who specialize in North Korea issues told NewsChina that the new foreign minister will not play a decisive role in North Korea-US relations.


In December 2018, Ri waved and smiled for the cameras at a ceremony on the border town of Kaesong for a project to link North Korea’s railways and highways with the South. The groundbreaking ceremony marked warming relations on the Korean Peninsula. But it was the last time Ri appeared in front of his South Korean counterparts as head of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC).  


The portly former military officer was a regular in the entourage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over the past two years, released photos show. But little is known about his personal background. The only information available is that he had served in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) before becoming the head of the CPRC that handles relations with South Korea.  


According to Michael Madden, a research fellow at the Stimson Center, a US think tank, CPRC is a coalition of different groups controlled by the United Front Department (UFD). After becoming head of the CPRC in late 2016, Ri reported directly to Kim Yong-chol, former UFD head and vice chairman of the WPK central committee tasked with inter-Korean relations.  


Before that, “Ri worked under Kim for many years in the KPA,” said Madden, who has closely observed the political reshuffle in North Korea.  


Ri played a leading role in military talks with South Korea since 2006. His involvement continued after Ri was named head of the CPRC, where he was a key figure in dealing with relations with South Korea. Since December 2016, Ri also held other posts related to North Korea’s unification efforts, where he used official and civic channels to communicate with South Korea.  


The Ri-led committee had signaled to South Korea a desire to negotiate on three occasions. On January 3, 2018, Ri announced on Korean Central Television that North Korea would reopen the North-South hotline in Panmunjom.  


Six days later, Ri met Cho Myung-gyon, South Korea’s Minister of Unification, on the south side of Panmunjom, marking the first direct ministerial dialogue between the two countries in 28 months.  


After that, Kim Yong-chol visited South Korea and the US as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy, and held high-level inter-Korean and North Korean-US talks. Ri was in charge of negotiations with South Korea and implementing the outcomes of the high-level talks. Ri was also part of the North Korean delegation at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in February 2018. Kim Yong-nam, former president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), led the delegation.  


When Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met at Panmunjom in April, the first meeting between the two countries’ leaders in 11 years, Ri was among North Korea’s nine-member entourage.  


Ri has been playing a leading role in inter-Korean ministerial meetings. According to KCNA, Ri participtated in at least 10 dialogues and communications with South Korea and visited Seoul twice in 2018. During that time, he helped advance relations between the two countries, from the three meetings between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in to implementing joint declarations, including the Panmunjom Declaration.  


The twists and turns in inter-Korean relations have had little impact on Ri’s official career. In April 2017, Ri joined the foreign affairs committee of the SPA. A year later, he became an alternate for the WPK Central Committee and was appointed as an SPA deputy in March 2019.  


Kwon Gi-sik, secretary to former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung who has experience in dealing with the CPRC, attributes Ri’s rapid promotion to “support from Kim Yong-chol.” “Ri is very close to Kim Yong-chol and many people see Ri as his aide,” Kwon told NewsChina.  


Kim Yong-chol quickly rose through the ranks after Kim Jong-un took control of the country in 2012.  


American expert Mark P. Barry, a veteran observer of US-Korea relations and founder of the Asia Pacific Peace Institute, called Ri the “former right-hand to Kim Yong-chol.”


According to Kwon, Ri’s diligence impressed negotiators from South Korea. Some friends said that Ri “stayed up until 2 to 3am every day.”  


But the North Korean official is equally known for his volatile temper. Even before entering the larger diplomatic arena, Ri had already earned a reputation as a rough, hardline negotiator among South Korean officials.  


During a parliamentary inquiry in October 2018, Cho Myung-gyon described how the South Korean delegation had once arrived five minutes late for aninter-Korean meeting. Ri expressed his irritation without mincing his words, saying the “work would not go well.”  


A former South Korean official told Reuters when Seoul demanded an apology for what it saw as North Korea’s past military provocations during military talks in 2014, that Ri had “stormed out of the room.”  


When Kim Jong-un held a reception dinner for Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang on September 18, 2018, Ri spotted the accompanying South Korean entrepreneurs eating Korean cold noodles in another banquet hall. “So you still have an appetite for cold noodles?” Ri asked the guests from South Korea with a “disrespectful and rude tone,” South Korean media reported. The slight was interpreted as disapproval for the efforts of South Korean entrepreneurs to boost business ties.  


Cho Myung-gyon later told South Korean congressmen that Ri “was expressing his hope to quicken the process of promoting bilateral relations.” But there was no official response from North Korea.  


With denuclearization talks at an impasse, some Western media outlets suggested Ri’s appointment indicates a toughening stance on nuclear issues.  


“It could be a signal that North Korea intends to safeguard its nuclear program and not negotiate it away unless the US were to remove its sanctions upon the North – a most unlikely scenario,��� Barry said.  


Despite Ri’s leading role in high-level interKorean talks, he has limited diplomatic experience, particularly in handling the US. Ri does not have as much political clout as his predecessors, or even Choe Son-hui, the first vice foreign minister, who is both a member of the WPK Central Committee and the State Affairs Commission. Ri is only an alternate member of the WPK Central Committee.  


“In that sense, his appointment might signal a downgrading of US relations within North Korea’s overall foreign policy, or a reduction of the Foreign Ministry’s role in relations with Washington,” The Washington Post quoted experts as saying, while cautioning it was too soon to tell.  


Some experts believe Ri’s foreign minister role will have little impact on North Korea-US relations. “He is unlikely to ever get personally involved in negotiations,” Barry told NewsChina. Choe, a career diplomat who has rich experience in dealing with North Korea-US relations, will continue to manage the process, Barry added.  


Kwon said that since Ri has limited experience in dealing with the US, Choe’s position would not be affected, adding “the foreign ministry might be co-led by the two top officials in the future.”  


“Ri has knowledge and experience in dealing with inter-Korean affairs, [which] would help South Korean officials to participate more in North Korea-US deals,” Kwon said.  


The reaction is generally pessimistic, though. “From now on, we can hardly expect meaningful progress between North Korea and the US,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told the Yonhap News Agency.  


There has been no open official contact between North Korea and the US since October 2019, when their working-level talks in Sweden broke off.