Update on 02/16/2019 at 1430 KST: This piece has been updated to include further details provided by a source.
Kwon Jong Gun, a former North Korean diplomat at the UN, is now head of the North Korean foreign ministry’s North America Department, a social media post by the Russian embassy in Pyongyang said on Thursday.
In a post on Facebook reporting on an event held to mark Russian Diplomats’ Day, which falls on February 10, the embassy reported that several officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), including Kwon, had been present.
“The event was attended by the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK, Im Chon Il [and] director of the department of North America Kwon Jong Gun,” that post read.
The influential position — which oversees diplomacy with the U.S. — was previously held by now-Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui until her promotion in February last year, and no replacement had been publicly named until this week.
Choe was last seen in mid-January en route to a conference in Sweden, accompanied by Choe Kang Il, a deputy director general at the North America Department.
Kwon serves concurrently as director of the Institute for American Studies, a MFA-run think tank, a source with knowledge of his promotion said.
His promotion to head of the North America Department, that source said, came immediately following Choe Son Hui’s elevation to the position of vice minister last year.
“He moved in as [director] when she moved up to vice minister a year ago,” the source said. “He’s long been a favorite of hers.”
Kwon’s most recent appearance in North Korean media was in November, in a commentary carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in which he suggested that the DPRK might resume nuclear development should the U.S. maintain its policy of sanctions and pressure.
“If the U.S. keeps behaving arrogant without showing any change in its stand…the word “pyongjin” (simultaneously conducting economic construction and building up nuclear forces) may appear again and the change of the line could be seriously reconsidered,” Kwon wrote at the time.
But he appears to have only held that position for a year or so: reports and official United Nations documents name him as having worked as a counselor to North Korea’s Mission to the UN between 2014 and 2017.
News of his promotion comes amid intensive planning between the U.S. and North Korea ahead of a planned second summit between the two countries, set to take place in Hanoi at the end of the month.
Last month saw Kim Hyok Chol, former DPRK ambassador to Spain, emerge as a key interlocutor in those talks — and named by the U.S. State Department as holding the title “Special Representative for U.S. Affairs of the State Affairs Commission.”
Kim is set to meet again with U.S. counterpart Stephen Biegun next week in an as-yet-unnamed third Asian nation.
One expert said the appointment of the relatively-unknown official spoke to a wider marginalization of the MFA in DPRK-U.S. talks.
“[This] seems to support what the replacement of Choe Son Hui as Biegun’s interlocutor seemed to show: this is not the foreign ministry’s show,” Mintaro Oba, a former East Asia Desk officer at the U.S. State Department, told NK News.
“When things get serious, you want party people. It doesn’t seem to me like the top brass in North Korea trust the foreign ministry or intend to give them much authority.”
The appointment also comes amid a broader reshuffle in the foreign ministry – and rumors that former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Han Song Ryol has been purged.
Han’s last reported whereabouts were in February last year, when he returned home from a visit to Sweden still carrying his vice-foreign minister title.
NK News later reported that Han had been replaced in that role by veteran diplomat Choe Son Hui, as part of a string of appointments which subsequently saw Im Chon Il promoted to vice foreign minister and Choe Hui Chol reassigned to the Western European portfolio.
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: DPRK Mission to the UN