Diplomats elevated to escape from international isolation

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Diplomats elevated to escape from international isolation


Diplomats were low on the North Korean totem pole during the military-first era of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s second leader.

But when his son Kim Jong-un rose to power in December 2011 following his father’s death, diplomacy abruptly got more respect. Kim made Ri Yong-ho, his minister of foreign affairs, a full member of the State Affairs Commission and an alternate member of the Politburo, the top body of the ruling Workers’ Party.

In socialist North Korea, one’s rank in the Politburo speaks volumes. Ri is known to rank 23rd out of 28 members in this elite group, while on the State Affairs Commission, he’s ranked 12th out of 12.

Kim Jong-il’s top envoys, Paek Nam-sun and Pak Ui-chun, never made the Politburo or National Defense Commission, which was replaced by the State Affairs Commission last year.

Analysts say Kim Jong-un’s elevation of the importance of the Foreign Affairs Ministry reminds them of the days of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. Pak Song-chol, Ho Dam and Kim Yong-nam, who served as his foreign ministers, were appointed either full or alternate members of the Politburo.

When Kim Jong-un revived a parliamentary diplomatic commission last April in the most recent meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s parliament, his pivot to diplomacy was even more pronounced. Its purpose is to tackle diplomatic issues from a wide range of angles, and committee members hail from varied backgrounds.

They include Kim Kye-gwan, first vice minister for foreign affairs; Ri Ryong-nam, vice premier of the cabinet; Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the DPRK; and Kim Jong-suk, chairwoman of the Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations, said the North was likely to use the commission “to escape from international isolation” as the world continues to impose harsh sanctions on the regime.

Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s current foreign minister, is the son of Ri Myong-je, who served as a deputy director in the Organization and Guidance Department under Kim Jong-il. His family background helped Ri Yong-ho climb the ranks. At one point, he was the chief negotiator in the six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization.

The six-party talks involved the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States and were initiated in 2003 with the aim of convincing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The discussions floundered in 2008 after North Korea walked out of them.

“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 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.”

On North Korea-U.S. relations, Ri’s sidekick is Choe Son-hui, director general of North American affairs in the Foreign Ministry. She supported Ri in the six-party talks and now leads North Korean delegations abroad for so-called Track 1.5 talks, or semi-governmental, semi-private discussions, with former U.S. officials. North Korea usually sends active government officials for those talks, while Washington sends retired officials now in the private sector.

The first such talks under the Donald Trump administration were held earlier this month in Oslo, Norway. Choe and her delegation spoke with Thomas R. Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, among others.

On her way back to North Korea, Choe made headlines at the Beijing airport by saying Pyongyang would talk to the Trump White House “if the conditions were right.” It was the first time North Korea replied to a suggestion Trump made two weeks earlier that bilateral dialogue might be possible.

For China and Russia relations, Ri’s strong ally is Ri Su-yong, a former foreign affairs minister who now works as chairman of the revived parliamentary diplomatic commission and vice chairman of the Workers’ Party’s International Affairs Department. He is also a full member of the party’s Politburo, ranked eighth, and vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, ranked seventh.

In June 2016, he led a North Korean delegation to China to meet with President Xi Jinping, the first public interaction between Xi and North Korea’s leadership since February 2014. Ri Su-yong at the time reportedly delivered a verbal message from Kim Jong-un, saying Pyongyang wished to strengthen bilateral ties with Beijing.

North Korean diplomacy lies within its Foreign Affairs Ministry, its parliamentary diplomatic commission and the Workers’ Party’s International Affairs Department, but the ultimate organ that oversees all three groups is the so-called National Security and Foreign Affairs Council, where Kim Jong-un and his top aides gather to hammer out key decisions on domestic and foreign policy. Kim’s most important diplomatic goal at this point is to sign a permanent peace treaty with the United States to replace a 64-year-old armistice and formally end the Korean War. Washington has rebuffed the idea in the past unless Pyongyang fully scraps its nuclear and missile programs, which Kim Jong-un has insisted will never happen.

The future lies in the hands of North Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Ri Yong-ho and Choe Son-hui, the ministry’s director general of North American affairs.

BY KO SOO-SUK, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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