North Korea has named as its new foreign minister a former senior army officer with little experience in dealings with the United States, in a possible indication it will take a harder line with Washington in stalled nuclear negotiations.
The new post for Ri Son Gwon was disclosed Friday in a Korean Central News Agency dispatch that said he attended a reception for foreign diplomats in Pyongyang on Thursday.
South Korean and other outside media previously reported North Korea had recently informed foreign diplomats in Pyongyang of Ri’s job.
In his speech at the banquet, “Comrade Ri Son Gwon said the Korean people have turned out in the general offensive to break through head-on the barriers to the advance of socialist construction by dint of self-reliance … and made public the foreign policy stand of the (North Korean) government,” KCNA said.
Ri, an outspoken retired army colonel who recently headed a government body responsible for relations with South Korea, has taken part in numerous inter-Korean talks over the past 15 years. But he lacks experience in negotiations with the US.
In South Korea, he is most known for what was seen as rude remarks to South Korean businessmen visiting Pyongyang in September 2018.
While they were eating “naengmyeon”, Korean traditional cold noodles, Ri asked them: “Are naengmyeon going down your throats?” in apparent dissatisfaction with a lack of progress in efforts to promote inter-Korean economic projects. Many conservatives in South Korea strongly criticised him.
Former foreign minister’s whereabouts unknown
Ri replaced Ri Yong Ho, a career diplomat with broad experiences in dealings with the US and South Korea who had taken part in nuclear negotiations with Washington since early 2018.
It was not immediately known what happened to Ri Yong Ho, whose name was last mentioned in KCNA last August.
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute said Ri Son Gwon’s appointment signalled North Korea would further harden its stance on the US and bolster its push to cement its position as a nuclear state.
“From now on, it’s difficult to expect meaningful progress in North Korea-U.S. diplomacy,” Cheong said.
Nuclear talks between the US and North Korea have progressed little since the breakdown of the second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February 2019.
Kim recently said North Korea would bolster its nuclear arsenal and unveil a new “strategic weapon” after the US failed to meet a year-end deadline set by him to make concessions.
A senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday that Washington was aware of Ri Son Gwon’s reported appointment and hopes North Korea will understand the importance of resuming diplomacy.
“There’s nothing to be gained by not talking. It’s only to their benefit, so we encourage them to talk,” the official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak publicly to the matter.
“It is slow, patient, steady diplomacy. We’re going to stick with that plan.”