One of North Korea’s long-serving diplomats may have been demoted or retired from his positions as a member of the Politburo and vice chairman at the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in charge of international affairs, analysis suggested on Monday.
Ri Su Yong, who additionally serves as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), has been absent from a number of key political events in recent weeks.
Speculation that the 79-year-old Ri had been demoted first emerged early this month, when he did not appear in a group photo of top WPK officials taken on December 31 following a high-profile ruling Party Plenum.
Those rumors now appear to have been confirmed by the absence of Ri’s name this weekend on the funeral committee of the late Hwang Sun Hui, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, organized by senior Politburo members.
Ri last appeared in state media coverage of the Party Plenum first released on January 1, having been seated in all four days of the event on stage behind Kim Jong Un among the Politburo leadership — before the group photo at the end of the event where he did not show up.
He is believed to have been replaced by former ambassador to Russia Kim Hyong Jun, who was promoted to the position of Central Committee vice chairman at the plenum earlier in the month.
“Kim Hyong Jun appears to have replaced Ri Su Yong on the Political Bureau, as a party vice chairman in charge of international affairs, and as the party’s International Department director during the party plenum shuffles,” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said.
“This is because Ri Su Yong was seen on the leadership rostrum during the party plenum but was missing from the group photo Kim Jong Un took with the party leadership after the plenum,” she added. “Ri also has not been mentioned or seen in state media since the party plenum.”
“Another reason for this inference is due to Kim Hyong Jun’s past career record, which is in diplomacy.”
Long seen as one of North Korea’s top diplomats, Ri Su Yong joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in the early 1970s, working his way up the ranks to become one of the DPRK’s most senior representatives to the United Nations in Geneva for over a decade.
Appointed ambassador to Switzerland in 1998, it was during that post that he was reported to have served as an unofficial chaperone for now-leader Kim Jong Un, who was at the time studying at an international school in Bern: a position that once saw him dubbed a “father figure” for Kim.
Ri — who also went by the name “Ri Chol” during his time in Switzerland — was then promoted to foreign minister in 2014.
Though replaced in that role two years later by Ri Yong Ho, he remained an active diplomat even in relative old age, leading relations with some of the DPRK’s closest allies and overseeing foreign policy as a Politburo official and vice chairman at the ruling party’s central committee.
News of Ri’s likely replacement also comes amid a broader reshuffle among North Korea’s top brass, with this month’s party plenum seeing notable promotions and possible demotions of prominent figures in the country’s military, cabinet, and more.
It also follows revelations over the weekend that Ri Yong Ho has been replaced as the country’s foreign minister by Ri Son Gwon, a military hardliner and former chairman of the inter-Korean relations-focused Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC).