Pyongyang picks man who led inter-Korea talks as top envoy

Mr Ri Son Gwon leading a delegation to attend a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on Jan 9, 2018. Mr Ri was former chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.
Mr Ri Son Gwon leading a delegation to attend a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas on Jan 9, 2018. Mr Ri was former chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.PHOTO: REUTERS

Move could change course of stalled nuclear talks amid heightened tensions following weapons tests

SEOUL • North Korea has named a former army officer who led military and high-level talks between the two Koreas as its top diplomat, Yonhap News reported, in a move that could change the course of stalled nuclear negotiations between leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.

Foreign envoys in Pyongyang were notified late last week that Mr Ri Son Gwon has replaced Mr Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister, the South Korean news agency said, citing various sources that it did not identify. Mr Ri Yong Ho had served as the top diplomat since 2016.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a text message that the government is trying to confirm whether the foreign minister was replaced and Mr Ri Son Gwon's official title has been changed.

The move, which is yet to be announced in North Korea's state media, is likely to be confirmed to resident diplomats at an event scheduled for Jan 23 in Pyongyang, NK News reported separately.

Mr Ri Son Gwon, former chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, became known to South Koreans after he led a delegation to high-level inter-Korea talks in January 2018.

He was accused of being rude to a visiting group of South Korean conglomerate chiefs later that year, appearing to rebuke them for not taking enough action to boost business development between the two sides.

The apparent replacement comes days after the isolated nation publicly declared that it will not rely on its leader's personal relationship with Mr Trump as it does not intend to trade its nuclear weapons for a halt in sanctions.

Since the failure of working-level denuclearisation talks in October in Stockholm, Pyongyang has not responded to Washington's continued demands for another talk and instead stepped up tensions verbally and with weapons tests.

Most recently, it said late last year that it successfully conducted a "crucial" test at a long-range projectile launch site and had boosted its nuclear-deterrent capabilities, without elaborating on details.

Mr Kim declared in a speech at the start of the year that a lack of US response in nuclear talks meant that he was no longer bound by his pledge to halt major missile tests and would soon debut a "new strategic weapon".

Declining to go into detail, Mr Kim also left the outside world guessing what "new path" he will take, and how he will deal with the United States this year.

 
 

Mr Ri Son Gwon served as a senior colonel in 2010, and last appeared in the North's state media when the KCNA reported in April that he was elected a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee along with Ms Choe Son Hui, first vice-minister of foreign affairs. He previously also led a working-level military dialogue between the two Koreas in 2011.

Mr Ri has no direct experience of dealing with the US, nor is he an official with the traditional elite-diplomat background, said Dr Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, casting doubts over a possible breakthrough in the US-North Korea talks.

"I think the North will take a harder line against the US," Dr Cheong said.

It "will be under greater influence of the military, which has urged to strengthen its position as a nuclear power," he said.

The replacement of foreign minister also coincides with Seoul's sudden turn to improve inter-Korea ties as the Kim-Trump talks for denuclearisation remain in deadlock, and rising cracks in South Korea's relations with the US.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he would help on projects such as individual tourism with North Korea if they require approval from the United Nations to exempt them from sanctions.

 
 

His Unification Ministry later said the government is considering allowing South Korean individuals to travel to North Korea to expand inter-Korea exchanges in the private sector.

US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said such a push by Seoul should be discussed with the US, and his comment was immediately denounced by Mr Moon's office as "very inappropriate".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2020, with the headline 'Pyongyang picks man who led inter-Korea talks as top envoy'. Print Edition | Subscribe