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Foreign Policy Analysis

[태영호TV]-ThaeYongHoTV- [북핵외교 심층분석]-Nuclear Diplomacy Ep-3 [김정일의 남자 리용호와 냉면보이 리선권]


Welcome everyone It’s time for your weekly update of Thae Yong Ho’s Nuclear Diplomacy, brought to you every Tuesday. Today’s episode covers the sudden removal of Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister and what that means for North Korea’s U.S and South Korea policy going forward. I’ll continue the discussion in the next episode of Nuclear Diplomacy where I’ll share my thoughts on how the U.S and South Korean governments’ should respond to North Korea’s new policies. There are reports that North Korea’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, has been swiftly replaced by Ri Son Gwon, the Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. If this is indeed true, it is an unthinkable change and I find it hard to believe. It’s not an exaggeration to say that North Korea’s history has been a history of purges. The Foreign Ministry, a place almost impossible to run without professional expertise and experience, has been known as a safe sanctuary from purges. Less than a handful of people have been positioned as North Korea’s Foreign Minister without diplomatic experience, dating back to former Chairman of the Workers’ Party of South Korea, Pak Hon Yong, and Pak Song Chol, one of Kim Il Sung’s partisan comrades. Those appointments were during the cold war when North Korea had little to no diplomatic relations with the West. Paek Nam Sun, an official from the ‘South Korea line’ (a collective term for departments responsible for South Korea policy and diplomacy), was appointed as foreign minister in the early 2000’s. But, prior to his appointment, he had previous experience in overseeing the foreign ministry and South Korea focused departments as the vice director of the Organization & Guidance Department. Paek Nam Sun also had foreign service experience under his belt, serving as ambassador to Poland in the 80’s. Several experts see Ri Yong Ho’s dismissal as a shift from Ri Su Yong, the vice chairman of the Workers’ Party, and Ri Yong Ho’s out-and-out U.S policy to a new U.S and South Korea policy to deliver a breakthrough in dialogue with the U.S. While others say sending a military hard-liner to head the Foreign Ministry is sending a strong message to the U.S, one that may lead to closing the window for dialogue and signal a shift towards hard-line policies. Now I’ll explain what kind of figure Ri Yong Ho was within North Korea’s foreign service Ri Yong Ho appeared on the scene during the 1994 Geneva Agreed-Framework talks and quickly became a leading figure in U.S diplomacy and strategist by the end of the 90’s. He was a true strategist, a rare breed in North Korea. Kim Jong Il called Ri Yong Ho a ‘Diplomatic Schemer’ after reading a report he had prepared. Kim Jong Il held Ri Yong Ho in high esteem due to his strategic intelligence but also his family connections. His father, Ri Myong Jae, served Kim Jong Il as the head of the 3rd floor secretariat during the 70’s and 80’s. The head of the 3rd floor secretariat in North Korea reports directly to the leader
and is a huge position. It is currently occupied by Kim Chang Son. It’s the equivalent to being the Blue House Chief of Staff. Ri Yong Ho’s strategic value at the time was so immense that when I was in the Foreign Ministry, former first vice foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, once told a group of diplomats that North Korea’s foreign service will flourish if he had five diplomats like Ri Yong Ho. Ri Yong Ho, in my experience working with him in the UK, was a studious figure that would stay in his office all day reading and writing. If anything, I hold his professionalism in high regard. Ri Yong Ho was behind the idea of declaring a quasi state of war to heighten tensions before North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 1993, He was also the brains behind freezing North Korea’s nuclear power plants in exchange for light water reactor plants in 1994, He also advised Kim Jong Il about the most strategic time to test North Korea’ first nuclear weapon in 2006 while he was in the UK. Ri Yong Ho has been an ever-present figure in U.S-North Korea negotiations over the last few decades. Now, Kim Jong Un had discarded Ri Yong Ho the“Diplomatic Schemer”, a man his own father had held in high esteem. Ri Yong Ho’s dismissal is akin to losing ‘a thousand troops and horses’ for North Korea’s foreign service, while the U.S and South Korea has been given an unexpected opportunity. Why has Kim Jong Un dumped a foreign service stalwart in Ri Yong Ho with a diplomatically inexperienced Ri Son Gwon? I believe I can find the answer in Kim Jong Un’s political method for the last 8 years. The North Korean economy in the last 8 years has been in recession and his plans to improve the economy are not working. Instead of examining the faults his own policies, he is finding blame in his cadre’s willpower and incompetence. This is the reason why North Korea has had so many key personnel changes in the last year. There were so many Ministers of the People’s Armed Forces or Chiefs of the General Staff that I started to forget all their names. Even the favored Choe Ryong Hae held four different positions in the last 8 years. As vice-director of the Working Organization Department, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, director of the Organization and Guidance Department and president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly respectively. Next reason for removing Ri Yong Ho is Kim Jong Un’s flip-flopping on U.S and South Korea policy. North Korea has never changed its position on nuclear armament and Korean unification. However, there are subtle strategic differences between the Foreign Ministry and the United Front Department on policy. They differ in their approach to achieving sanctions relief while maintaining nuclear weapons, unifying the peninsula under communist rule and how to use South Korea when engaging with the U.S. The Foreign Ministry pursues direct dialogue only with the U.S and excludes South Korea, while pushing claims to be recognized as a nuclear power through nuclear disarmament talks Ri Yong Ho and the North Korean foreign ministry view South Korea as a cog in America’s global strategy. Therefore, they believe changing U.S policy on the Korean peninsula will be the best option to change South Korea, not the other way around. The must engage in nuclear disarmament negotiations with the U.S, as a way to be recognized as a legitimate nuclear power dealing with another, and that means directly communicating with the U.S and excluding South Korea in such negotiations. In other words, South Korea is not a recognized nuclear power so they have no stake during nuclear related talks. United Front Department: Reaching the U.S and the international community through South Korea. Shaking the U.S-Korea alliance with an ‘our people’ mentality and changing U.S policy . The United Front Department recognize South Korea’s growth over the years and they seek to take advantage of growing anti-US sentiments in South Korea to shake up the U.S-Korea alliance, forcing the U.S into a corner. In doing so, the U.S will ultimately have to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power. These are the two differing perspectives between the Foreign Ministry and the United Front Department. So how did Inter-Korean relations and U.S-North Korea talks in 2018 unfold? U.S-North Korea relations hit rock bottom in 2017 and there were virtually no signs of a turnaround in 2018. In other words, the possibility of Kim Jong Un and Trump holding hands and hugging was unthinkable. Kim Yong Chul and other figures in the United Front Department believed they could rebuild a working relationship with the U.S and ease pressure on the nuclear issue if they successfully utilized South Korea. President Moon’s efforts delivering the Panmunjom Declaration in 2018 and successfully, albeit being close to a breakdown, mediating the Singapore summit strengthened the United Front Department’s position. Especially, the unthinkable achievement of bringing North Korea to the table to discuss a ‘trust building stage required for a denuclearized Korean peninsula” following the joint statement at the Singapore summit. An encouraged United Front Department went a step further to declare “a permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon following reciprocal steps taken by the U.S” during the Pyongyang Joint Declaration in September. Delivering the news of dismantling Yongbyon’s nuclear facilities to the U.S through South Korea instead of negotiating with the U.S directly would have irked the Foreign Ministry. However, they couldn’t speak out as the whole affair was approved and led by Kim Jong Un with Kim Yong Chul in support. The displeasure of the Foreign Ministry was later revealed at the U.N General Assembly, shortly after the Pyongyang Joint Declaration in the same month. President Moon told the General Assembly that the Pyongyang Joint Declaration had reconfirmed Kim Jong Un’s willingness to denuclearize during this address. Three days later, on the same platform, Ri Yong Ho told the audience that the Pyongyang Joint Declaration was “a part of the new trust building process” that was agreed upon at the Singapore summit. There was no mention of dismantling Yongbyon facilities, which was the talk of the world. Ri Yong Ho’s address at the UN reaffirmed his position on the matter. The dialogue for denuclearization can only begin by lifting sanctions, and that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons before that happens. In hindsight, this message rang true as Kim Jong Un was too focused on achieving a result through negotiations and revealed his Yongbyon trump card far too easily and early. This gave enough time for the U.S to assess the situation and prepare for the Hanoi Summit. The South Korean government also made a slight mistake. North Korea giving up the Yongbyon facilities is a huge concession. The South Korean government should have stepped aside after delivering news of North Korea’s willingness to dismantle its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon to the U.S. Instead, it was blabbering about how Yongbyon was the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program, when it’s not. The U.S had every right to be excited as the two Korea’s simultaneously revealed the Yongbyon dismantlement deal. Ultimately, the Hanoi Summit broke down and Kim Yong Chol’s strategy to use the Yongbyon card to relieve sanctions was placed on the backburner and the pro-South Korea strategy was at an impasse. Fatal mistake in North Korea’s diplomacy. The ignorance of expertise and the failure of the top-down approach. Kim Jong Un was furious at his subordinates following the breakdown in Hanoi. Personnel directly responsible for the summit were demoted and Kim Yong Chul’s position as the head of U.S policy was no more. The South Korean government was also criticized for its role and was called an “intrusive mediator”. Kim Jong Un’s administrative policy address on April 12th clearly showed his angered emotional side. Kim Jong Un even unexpectedly declared an year-end ultimatum to the U.S. Usually, a year-end ultimatum is declared by the strong to the weak, not the other way around. Because, if the ultimatum is not backed by strong force then you may actually end up on the back foot. Ri Yong Ho would have never agreed to such an ultimatum that defy common sense. I thought this was a result of North Korea’s ‘top-down’ absolutism, a situation where the Foreign Ministry has to accept an angry Kim Jong Un’s decision. Ri Yong Ho was against publicizing North Korea’s intention to become a recognized nuclear power and wanted a gradual approach to dialogue with the U.S. He said “we must do what’s possible and take it step by step.” Instead of reaching an agreement, he believed in prolonging negotiation for about 5 years to make the U.S lose their enthusiasm for denuclearization. By this stage, sanctions on North Korea will have been eased and efforts to intensify them once more will be uncertain. Ri Yong Ho’s long term approach would have directly clashed with Kim Jong Un’s short-term plan to relieve sanctions and his impatient personality. Ri Yong Ho would have continued to hold meaningless summits and talks such as Trump’s surprise visit and the Stockholm talks without any agreement or progress to eventually tire out the U.S. While Kim Jong Un would have commanded his subordinates to deliver concrete results out of impatience and anxiety. The Foreign Ministry made extraordinary threats leading up to the deadline of the year-end ultimatum. I believe the Foreign Ministry made such threats to appease an angered Kim Jong Un in an obsequious act. Kim Jong Un, anxious from the approaching deadline, would have ordered the Foreign Ministry to throw the kitchen sink at the U.S with every threat possible, but, the U.S did not budge. A North Korean idiom comes to mind, “Kicking a dog after getting angry at your mother-in-law”, meaning directing your anger at the wrong person. It seems Kim Jong Un took out his anger at the Foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho. Kim Jong Un continued to harbour his frustrations and decided to replace Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister and remove him as a member of the politburo at the 5th plenary meeting. Ri Yong Ho was seated in the premier seating area when the plenum started but by the end of the plenum photoshoot, he was seen together with four other demoted members of the politburo. In summary, Kim Jong Un disapproved of Ri Yong Ho’s indirect and long-term tactics and revealed his own ‘full-frontal’ strategy to strengthen his image as an uncompromising leader. Kim Jong Il framed his diplomatic approach around covertness and uncertainty. He didn’t want anyone to know North Korea’s true intentions and used his partners to North Korea’s advantage. Now, his son is going in an opposite direction towards ‘full-frontal’ diplomacy, revealing all his cards for all to see. Thank you watching Thae Yong Ho’s Nuclear Diplomacy Analysis

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