North Korea appointed a new foreign minister during the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Reuters reports. Ri Yong-ho will replace Ri Su-yong as the reclusive state’s top global diplomat. Ri has several years of experience interacting with other countries on behalf of the North Korean regime. He was a top negotiator for North Korea during failed disarmament talks through the 1990s and the 2000s. Recently, during the WPK Congress, Ri was also elected a full member of the Central Committee.
Since Kim Jong-un took over North Korea after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011, he has never traveled abroad. Ri Su-yong represented North Korea at the United Nations and other international bodies. In rare instances, other senior members of the North Korean government have traveled abroad for diplomatic purposes. In late 2014, Hwang Pyong-so, now vice marshal of the Korean People’s Army and member of the Politburo Presidum of the Workers’ Party of Korea; Choe Ryong-hae, also a Politburo Presidium Member; and Kim Yang-gon, a recently deceased senior official, traveled to Seoul, South Korea, for the closing ceremony of the 17th Asian Games there. Choe additionally traveled for China’s military parade last September, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Asia.
Does Ri’s appointment as foreign minister suggest any shifts in North Korean policy? Ri’s background as North Korea’s top negotiator at the failed Six-Party Talks shouldn’t be read into too much. North Korea’s recently concluded party congress affirmed its status as a nuclear weapons state, a designation that the United States, South Korea, and even China are unwilling to tolerate. Ri’s appointment may suggest that Kim Jong-un is simply looking for a new face to communicate the reality of North Korea’s increasingly credible nuclear deterrent to the outside world.
Ri’s profile at NK Leadership Watch, a website that catalogs the biographies of senior North Korean officials, suggests that he’s traveled widely, with diplomatic experience on three continents. Furthermore, Ri has long been involved with North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. North Korean state media has yet to announce Ri’s formal appointment, but Reuters verified his appointment through a note sent to the British Foreign Office by the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom announcing his appointment.