SEOUL – North Korea has named a sharp-tongued former army officer with little foreign policy experience as its top diplomat, in a possible indication it will take a harder line with Washington in stalled nuclear negotiations.
Ri Son Gwon's new title as foreign minister was disclosed Friday in a Korean Central News Agency dispatch that said he attended a reception for foreign diplomats in Pyongyang the previous day. South Korean and other outside media outlets have recently reported North Korea informed foreign diplomats in Pyongyang of Ri's job last week.
In his speech at the banquet, “Comrade Ri Son Gwon said that 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 previously headed a government body responsible for relations with South Korea, has taken part in numerous inter-Korean military talks over the past 15 years. But Ri, who is also an alternate member of the ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, lacks experience in negotiations with the United States and other countries.
In South Korea, he is most known for what were 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, according to South Korean officials and lawmakers. Many conservatives in South Korea strongly criticized him.
Ri replaced Ri Yong Ho, a career diplomat with broad experiences who had taken part in nuclear negotiations with the United States since early 2018. It wasn’t 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 signaled North Korea would further harden its stance toward the U.S. and bolster a 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 U.S. 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 strengthen its nuclear arsenal and unveil a new “strategic weapon” after the U.S. failed to meet a year-end deadline set by him to make concessions.
A senior State Department official told reporters 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 authorized to speak publicly to the matter. “It is slow, patient, steady diplomacy. We’re going to stick with that plan.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.