Update at 1645 KST: This article has been amended with further details on the foreign ministry reshuffle.
Choe Son Hui, formerly the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) director of the North American department, has been promoted to a vice-ministerial position, according to a diplomatic note circulated to officials in Pyongyang last week.
In reports confirmed to NK News by multiple sources this week, the news will see Choe – a diplomat with extensive experience negotiating on nuclear issues – take a senior foreign ministry position amid hints that Pyongyang may be interested in talks with Washington D.C.
The daughter of former DPRK Premier Choe Yong Rim, she previously served as an interpreter for North Korean delegations to nuclear negotiations since the 1990s and through the Six-Party Talks in 2003-9.
Amid high tensions last year over North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing – and a war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un – Choe notably often struck a more diplomatic tone.
And last May saw her fly to Norway for track 1.5 talks with former U.S. diplomats, telling press in Beijing that Pyongyang would talk to Washington “if conditions are there.”
Later in the year she traveled to Moscow to meet with Oleg Burmistrov, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Ambassador-at-Large, who she had previously met with in Pyongyang.
There are believed to be six vice-ministerial positions in North Korea’s foreign ministry, with the most senior being held by first vice-foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan.
Informed sources said that they had been told by North Korean officials that Choe’s promotion would see her replace current vice-minister Han Song Ryol – whose promotion to the position had initially made room for Choe to become director of the North American department – as head of the ministry’s North America portfolio.
Han, who will remain a vice minister, is now solely responsible for European affairs.
It is unclear who will take Choe’s place as director of the American department.
The promotion may suggest a broader reshuffle at the DPRK foreign ministry is taking place, last seen in 2016 when Ri Yong Ho was promoted to Minister of Foreign Affairs.
One expert told NK News that Choe’s experience as a diplomat made her promotion only a matter of time.
“She is incredibly bright and apparently well-connected so it seemed like only a matter of time that she would be elevated,” said Ralph Cossa – President of the CSIS Pacific Forum – said. “I have heard she also replaced Han as head of the Institute for American Studies.”
“Han is also a consummate diplomat so it will be interesting to see what is in store for him: perhaps returning to NYC for another UN appointment? It would be surprising (and disappointing) if were to be put out to pasture.”
Additional reporting: Hamish Macdonald
Featured image: Artyom Korotayev/TASS/Alamy Live News