Ri Yong who? Meet North Korea's foreign minister Ri Yong Ho who called Trump 'Mr Evil President'

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North Korea’s Foreign Minister fires another shot in the war of words with the US, saying that the launching of its rockets at the US mainland was 'inevitable' after US President Donald Trump called Pyongyang's leader 'rocket man'.
North Korean Minister for Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho speaking during the General Debate of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Sept 23, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

TOKYO (WASHINGTON POST) - When North Korea's foreign minister took the podium last week at the UN General Assembly, it marked a relatively rare public appearance of a representative from Kim Jong Un's regime.

Since he arrived in New York last week, Ri Yong Ho has been making headlines, comparing President Donald Trump to a barking dog and saying that he feels sorry for Trump's aides.

"If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that's really a dog dream," Ri told reporters after arriving in New York last Wednesday. This was a reference to a North Korean saying that processions keep on moving even if dogs are barking. In Korean, a "dog dream" is one that is absurd and makes little sense, Yonhap news agency reported.

When asked about the term "Rocket Man", Trump's new nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Ri said: "I feel sorry for his aides."

As Kim said Pyongyang would consider the "highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history" against the US, Ri told waiting reporters last Friday that the North Korean leader is planning to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

This is the third year in a row that North Korea has sent its foreign minister to the UN General Assembly, but it is the first time that Ri, who was appointed to the post last year, has attended.

Ri's debut address at General Assembly last Friday, has raised eyebrows. He said Trump was "chastised even by the American people as "Commander in Grief", "Lying King", "President Evil".

But former US Department of State official and founder of respected North Korea monitoring website 38 North Joel S. Wit, writing in The Atlantic, said Ri may offer the best chance for finding a way forward in the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Here are four things to note about North Korea's top diplomat.

1. Direct access to Kim Jong Un

Although the Foreign Ministry has relatively little influence compared with security agencies in North Korea, Ri holds a special position in the regime.

"He is a well-connected foreign minister," Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has met Ri on several occasions, told Washington Post.

"The foreign ministry as a whole is an organisation without a great deal of clout within the DPRK but he as a foreign minister is listened to, and he is one of the few people that we come into contact with who is also believed to talk to Kim Jong Un."

Ri is also one of the few North Korean apparatchiks well known to US officials.

Writing on the Atlantic website, Wit said: "A meeting with Foreign Minister Ri would be an important opportunity for the Trump administration to directly communicate its views to a North Korean official with ties to Kim Jong Un."

2. 'Bona fide princeling' and rising political star

Ri is the son of Ri Myong Je, who was editor of the state-run Korean Central News Agency, the regime mouthpiece, and was a close aide to late leader Kim Jong Il.

That makes Ri a "third generation DPRK elite" and "a bona fide princeling," according to the North Korea Leadership Watch , a website that catalogs the biographies of senior North Korean officials.

Thanks to this blue blood, Ri, who is about 63, has enjoyed a number of high-level positions in the North Korean regime.

(He is not to be confused with Ri Yong Ho, a former chief of North Korea's military general staff who was reportedly purged and executed earlier this year.)

At the Workers' Party Congress in Pyongyang in May last year, the first in a generation, Ri was made an alternate member of the party's Political Bureau.

Ri attended Namsan Senior Middle School and studied English at Pyongyang University of Foreign Language

3. Confident, skilful career diplomat

In person, Ri comes across as at ease with himself and self-confident, and sometimes even self-deprecating, said Evans Revere, a former State Department official on the Koreas who has met Ri about three times in the last five years.

Ri is not a typical communist bureaucrat, said Wit, who met Ri on a few occasions during his 15-year-long career at the US State Department,

He has impressive diplomatic skills. "Smart, thoughtful, and articulate, he is a careful listener who often asks perceptive questions and chooses his responses with care," Wit wrote on the Atlantic website.

Ri began his career at the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs in 1978, six years before Kim Jong Un was born. He has travelled widely, with diplomatic experience on three continents.

As a young diplomat, Ri was posted in Zimbabwe and Sweden, and was ambassador to Britain between 2003 and 2007.

"One of Kim Jong Un's best decisions was appointing Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister," said Thae Yong Ho, a former deputy ambassador at the North Korean Embassy in London who served under Ri while he was ambassador there. Thae defected to South Korea last summer.

"He's a role model to every North Korean diplomat - very knowledgeable in foreign languages and a spectacular writer," Thae told South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo.

4. Expert on the US and disarmament issues

Ri at one point served as chief negotiator in the six-party talks on North Korean denuclearisation before the talks were stalled in December 2008.

For nearly 20 years, Ri has been one of the central diplomatic managers of the country's relations with the United States and has been a primary interlocutor with representatives of the United States during official and unofficial "Track 1.5" talks, North Korea Leadership Watch says.

In 2000, Ri accompanied Vice-Marshal Jo Myong Rok, who was second-in-command of the North's powerful National Defense Commission after Kim Jong Il, on a trip to the United States. There, he met with President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, a visit that was hailed as a step toward better relations between the two countries, reported Washington Post. (That never happened because George W. Bush soon took office and pursued a very different approach towards North Korea.)

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