Update: The headline has been amended to better reflect Choe’s position
Two senior female diplomats will be at the center of any future North Korean nuclear negotiations: Choe Son Hui, the North Korean foreign ministry’s deputy U.S. bureau head, and Kang Kyung-hwa, the South Korean foreign minister.
Both began their diplomatic careers as interpreters. Kang rose to become the Director General of International Organizations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), then moved to the United Nations to head its human rights and humanitarian offices, before returning home to become South Korea’s first female foreign minister under President Moon Jae-in this year.
Choe, in turn, was the interpreter for North Korean delegations to nuclear negotiations since the 1990s and through the Six-Party Talks in 2003-9. Most U.S. representatives at the Six-Party Talks knew Choe, as she was translating their words into Korean. Choe became deputy director of the U.S. division in 2010.
Both were lucky to have influential fathers. Kang’s father, Kang Chang-seon, was a well-known announcer and, later, a senior executive for the Korea Broadcasting Service (KBS). Choe’s father is Choe Yong Rim, a former DPRK premier.
Thanks to their privileged backgrounds, both were educated overseas: Kang gained a Ph.D. in the U.S. in media communication, and Choe studied in Austria, Malta, and China.
Both high-profile women diplomats – rare in both North and South Korea – Kang and Choe have received extensive media attention, and the two have appeared at multiple bilateral and multilateral events over the past year.
Thanks to their privileged backgrounds, both were educated overseas
Choe Son Hu has led North Korean delegations in high-level talks
Choe has been seen in a number of track-2 dialogues with the U.S. In June 2016, she attended the 26th Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD) in Beijing and sat next to Sung Kim, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korean Policy. When asked about any potential dialogue with Washington, Choe said that “because of the U.S. hostile policy, it is not a time to talk about the North’s denuclearization.”
Later that year, Choe appeared again in October and November in Kuala Lumper, Malaysia and Geneva, Switzerland, respectively. Among those she met were Robert Gallucci, a former U.S. special envoy on North Korean nuclear issues, and Joseph Di Trani, a former U.S. deputy representative to the Six-Party Talks.
In May this year, Choe flew to Norway to hold another 1.5 track meeting with Suzanne di Maggio from the New America Foundation, Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, Robert Einhorn, the former State Department non-proliferation special advisor, and William Fallon, the former head of the U.S. Pacific Command.
According to a senior South Korean government official speaking to South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo, Choe said her government would halt nuclear and missile tests if the U.S. stopped its “hostility” and sign a peace treaty with the North. Her offer was not accepted: the U.S. wanted at least the freezing of the North’s nuclear program, if not a complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
Choe has been seen in a number of track-2 dialogues with the U.S.
After the meeting, Choe held a highly unusual press conference in front of the North Korean embassy, and expressed interest in a dialogue with the Trump administration “if conditions allow.” On international sanctions, she also said her country was “very much used to them.”
In the South, Kang has been busy building a global consensus against North Korean nuclear programs. She accompanied President Moon on his first overseas visit to the U.S., and then to Germany to attend the G20 Summit. In August, she attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila.
Kang also briefly met her North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, at the ARF. Ri gave Kang the cold shoulder and turned down the South’s offers of talks.
North Korea, Kang said, was totally isolated at the ARF. The North Koreans offered bilateral talks with ASEAN member states, but no one accepted – except for the Philippines, which hosted the event.
Kang’s biggest challenge was meeting the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who expressed strong opposition to Seoul’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD).
In the South, Kang has been busy building a global consensus against North Korean nuclear programs
Kang’s strength is in multilateralism, she broadens South Korean diplomatic horizons to other regions. In August, South Korea hosted the Forum on East Asia and Latin American Cooperation (FEALAC) in Busan.
Although the forum was focused mainly on economic cooperation, Kang managed to add a clause to the closing statement about the FEALAC members’ concerns over the North’s nuclear programs and their support for the promotion of peace and stability in the Korean peninsula.
Although their reach and exercise of power are ultimately limited by their bosses and colleagues, internal politics and by the security environment, it is good to see at least two senior diplomatic positions in both Koreas being held by women.
This is already a significant progress in diplomacy in both North and South Koreas. The public can only hope their soft power calms the strong rherotic in Pyongyang and Washington.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: UN, VOA, edited by NK News
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