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(4th LD) N. Korea picks new top diplomat, heralding policy shift

21:54 January 19, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by analyst in paras 10-11)

SEOUL, Jan. 19 (Yonhap) -- North Korea appears to have picked its point man for relations with South Korea as its new foreign minister, possibly heralding a shift in its policy toward the United States and South Korea.

According to informed sources here on Sunday, North Korea has notified foreign ambassadors based in Pyongyang of its recent appointment of Ri Son-gwon as the country's new top envoy.

The sources said the notification was made late last week, and his official appointment may be announced this week.

Ri Son-gwon, if confirmed, will replace Ri Yong-ho, probably signaling that the communist state may reshape its policy toward Washington and Seoul, although any drastic changes are unlikely at the moment.

Ri, a former army officer, has been serving as chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which is equivalent to the South's unification ministry.

The new foreign minister has been North Korea's key official for relations with South Korea.

He was the head of the North Korean delegation to recent high-level talks with South Korea, including the meeting in August 2018 that led to President Moon Jae-in's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang in September the same year.

Besides his career dealing with the South, however, little has been known about his professional experience in the field of foreign affairs.

His apparent appointment came as South Korea renewed its commitment to improving inter-Korean ties amid stalled negotiations between the U.S. and the North and a chasm between Seoul and Washington over approaches toward Pyongyang.

Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said it would be too simplistic to characterize North Korea's new diplomatic line-up as more hawkish and what can be surmised is recognition by Kim that last year's approach didn't work.

"It may be optimistic to say this represents a diplomatic opening for South Korea and the United States, but for now, a shake-up of personnel by North Korea appears less provocative than displaying a new strategic weapon," he said.

This undated photo shows Ri Son-gwon. (Yonhap)

In his New Year's address, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed that the two Koreas make concerted efforts to create the conditions for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to visit South Korea as agreed.

He also reaffirmed his administration's commitment to pushing for the resumption of two major inter-Korean projects -- the Kaesong industrial complex and Mount Kumgang tours -- as well as the reconnection of roads and railways.

Related efforts have made little headway as Seoul has abided by the U.N. Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang.

South Korea also said individual tours to the North do not violate U.N. sanctions and that it could eventually induce the North to return to dialogue and win international support for partial relief of sanctions, which irked Washington which in response said Seoul should consult with the U.S. about its plans to engage with North Korea.

The dismissal of Ri Yong-ho, a seasoned career diplomat well versed in diplomacy towards the U.S., as the country's foreign minister came amid the communist country's repeated stance that it will not sit down with the U.S. for denuclearization negotiations.

Denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since the second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi collapsed without a deal in February last year.

North Korea has said it will not return to dialogue until the U.S. fully accepts its demands and withdraws what it calls a "hostile policy" against the North.

As the negotiations with the U.S. have been in the doldrums, the North has internally and externally vowed a "long-term" battle on the front with the United States.

Early this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he sees no reason to stick to his commitment to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and will soon show off a "new strategic weapon," accusing the United States of stalling for time for its own political interests.

Kim, however, appeared to have left room for negotiations as he also said that how much the North will bolster its "nuclear deterrent" will depend on the future U.S. attitude.

The replacement of North Korea's foreign minister appears to be also linked with the recent return of some North Korean ambassadors back to the home country.

North Korean Ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong and Ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song were seen departing for Pyongyang on Saturday, sparking speculation of a possible gathering of overseas-based ambassadors in the North Korean capital.

The latest appointment capped the four-year career of Ri Yong-ho as foreign minister. Ri accompanied North Korean leader Kim to the second and third North Korea-U.S. summits between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, and the inter-Korean border city of Panmunjom in February and June last year, respectively.

The former foreign minister did not appear for the final-day photo session of a plenary meeting of the North Korean ruling party's Central Committee on Dec. 31, 2019, sparking questions about his whereabouts.



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