Who is N. Korea’s new top diplomat, Ri Son-gwon, a hardliner from the military?
North Korea appears to have picked its point
man for relations with South Korea as its new foreign minister. It can be a precursor
of a shift in its policy toward the United States and South Korea.
According to informed sources here yesterday, North Korea notified foreign ambassadors based
in Pyongyang of its recent appointment of Ri Son-gwon as the country’s new top diplomat.
The sources said his official appointment may be announced this week.
Ri Son-gwon, if confirmed, will replace Ri yong-ho, probably signaling that the communist
state may reshape its policy toward Washington and Seoul, although any drastic changes are
unlikely at the moment. Ri, a former army officer, has been serving
as chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which is equivalent
to the South’s Ministry of unification. He was the head of the North Korean delegation
to recent high-level talks with South Korea, including the meeting in August 2018 that
led to President Moon Jae-in’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang
in September the same year. Besides his career dealing with the South,
however, little has been known about his professional experience in the field of foreign affairs.
This is why some critics say it is a shocking appointment rather than a surprise.
Kim Jong-un is believed to have reiterated his willingness to take a hard-line stance
toward the U.S. After the second U.S.-North Korea summit, Kim used bold diplomacy, suggesting
a “year-end deadline,” but nothing has been gained as a result. In other words, he suggested
aggressive diplomacy by placing a hard-line military figure in charge of diplomacy with
the U.S. In fact, Ri is known to be a hardliner who
recklessly takes the lead of his opponent. He made headlines when he rebuked South Korean
conglomerate owners who were eating cold noodles for lunch by asking how cold noodles could
glide down their throat during the Pyongyang inter-Korean summit in September 2018. Back
in February 2011, he even stormed out of the working-level military talks between the two
Koreas, saying, “It has nothing to do with us,” when the sinking of the warship Cheonan
was mentioned. However, others analyze that it would be too
simplistic to characterize North Korea’s new diplomatic line-up as a more hawkish line-up
and what can be surmised is recognition by Kim that last year’s approach didn’t work.
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