Ex-envoy may be N. Korea's new point man in US talks

According to South Korean media, the North's former ambassador to Vietnam Kim Myong Gil (left) will replace Mr Kim Hyok Chol as the counterpart to US Special Representative Stephen Biegun.
According to South Korean media, the North's former ambassador to Vietnam Kim Myong Gil (left) will replace Mr Kim Hyok Chol as the counterpart to US Special Representative Stephen Biegun. PHOTOS: REUTERS

Veteran diplomat played visible role in Hanoi summit and was member of teams at UN, six-party talks

SEOUL • North Korea appears to have appointed a long-time veteran of international diplomacy as point man in the new round of denuclearisation talks with the United States, a diplomatic source in Seoul confirmed yesterday.

At Sunday's surprise US-North Korea summit at the demilitarised border between the two Koreas, the North Koreans informed the Americans that former ambassador to Vietnam Kim Myong Gil would act as the counterpart to US Special Representative Stephen Biegun, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations.

A spokesman for the US Embassy in Seoul declined to comment.

South Korean media, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, reported on Thursday that Mr Kim Myong Gil would be taking over from Mr Kim Hyok Chol, the North Korean diplomat who served as Mr Biegun's counterpart ahead of the Hanoi summit, which collapsed with no deal in February.

Last month, CNN reported that Mr Kim Hyok Chol, a former ambassador to Spain, was alive and in state custody, contradicting a South Korean newspaper report that he had been executed for his role in the summit breakdown.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the accounts.

Previously, some North Korean officials who were reported to have been executed or purged reappeared later with new titles.

The collapse of the Hanoi summit was a major setback for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who, according to several sources, was led to believe by hawkish aides such as former general and spymaster Kim Yong Chol that he was about to win sought-after sanctions relief in return for a promise to partially scrap nuclear facilities.

Mr Kim Yong Chol was also removed from his position as the counterpart for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but has since appeared at some public events alongside Mr Kim Jong Un.

After meeting Mr Kim Jong Un on Sunday, US President Donald Trump said the two sides had agreed to name teams to resume talks that have been stalled since the previous summit.

At the time, Mr Trump said Mr Kim was putting someone in charge "who we know and like", but did not name the official.

As then-ambassador in Hanoi, Mr Kim Myong Gil played a visible role alongside Mr Kim Jong Un as the leader met Mr Trump and Vietnamese officials.

According to a fact sheet by South Korea's Unification Ministry, Mr Kim Myong Gil was previously a member of delegations at the United Nations and the failed six-party talks aimed at reining in North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes that it pursued for years in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions.

The talks included the two Koreas, the US, Japan, Russia and host China.

In April, North Korean state media reported that Mr Kim Myong Gil was leaving his post as ambassador to Vietnam.

If the appointment is confirmed, Mr Kim Myong Gil's long experience as a diplomat could pose opportunities as well as challenges for Mr Biegun, said Ms Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.

"On the one hand, it will make Mr Biegun's conversations easier because Mr Kim knows 'diplomatic speak' and the issues very well, but his knowledge and experience mean that negotiations could also get tricky," she said.

"North Korean diplomats pride themselves on knowing the US better than Americans."

It is unclear, however, whether swopping out negotiators would help the talks make progress, added Ms Kim.

She said: "At the end of the day, it almost doesn't matter who the lead negotiator is because they get their marching orders from Mr Kim Jong Un."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2019, with the headline 'Ex-envoy may be N. Korea's new point man in US talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe