It was September 2018, and peace and reconciliation was the talk of Pyongyang as a gaggle of South Korean VIPs descended on the North Korean capital for a gala summit between President Moon Jae-in and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un.
Among those VIPs were some of South Korea’s richest men: Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, LG Group Chairman Koo Kwang-mo, and SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won.
At a banquet on day two of the summit, they sat down with top North Korean officials for a feast of naengmyeon, the ice-cold noodles that had become something of a symbol of the new inter-Korean rapprochement.
But sitting at the table that day with South Korea’s corporate aristocracy, one North Korean hardliner was not buying into the feel-good atmosphere. He wanted cash.
“How can you swallow cold noodles well under such circumstances?” Ri Son Gwon, then-chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country and a former military officer, reportedly exclaimed, rebuking the tycoons for their apparent lack of interest in investing in the DPRK’s moribund economy.
The move, notably, comes just weeks after a high-profile ruling party plenum appeared to confirm North Korea’s new determination to go it alone, as well as Kim Jong Un’s plans to unveil a new “strategic” weapon in the coming months.
Speaking to NK News this week, however, observers cautioned against reading Ri’s promotion as speaking to a major policy shift in North Korean foreign policy, but instead as Kim Jong Un likely bolstering his team with hardliners — and perhaps steeling for a long fight ahead.
“Kim already set his harder-lined policy direction for the year in his party plenum speech, so the appointment means Kim is putting in place the people he thinks will implement his marching orders,” Duyeon Kim, Senior Adviser for North East Asia and Nuclear Policy at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told NK News.
“We’re seeing Pyongyang begin to set Kim’s new year’s plans in motion.”
A BREAK FROM CONVENTION
The promotion is certainly an unusual one. North Korea typically plucks its top diplomat from the ranks of its seasoned overseas corps — both preceding foreign ministers had worked as ambassadors overseas — not its military, where Ri served as a Senior Colonel for many years.
“He is a military man first and foremost,” said Chris Green, a lecturer at the University of Leiden and an expert in inter-Korean relations, who was surprised to learn of Ri’s promotion to foreign minister.
“He doesn’t have pedigree as a diplomat, except of course in so far as he participated in inter-Korean relations.”
It was in that role as chief envoy to the South during inter-Korean talks in early 2018 that Ri became well-known, at least in South Korea, as a hard-nosed negotiator with an acid tongue, frequently chastising his Southern counterparts and even local press.
“He is known to be a person with a hot temper and high-handed attitude, who uses crude language”
“He is one of the well known North Koreans in the South,” said Wang Son-taek, a veteran reporter on North Korean affairs for South Korean broadcaster YTN and a columnist for NK News.
“He is known to be a person with a hot temper and high-handed attitude, who uses crude language,” he added. “My impression on his negotiating style is that he is an unsophisticated negotiator with low-grade diplomatic skills.”
Potential U.S. negotiators would do well to examine Ri’s style during those negotiations, which often saw him dismiss and patronize his counterparts, abruptly withdraw from talks at the last minute, and throw them curveballs to put them on the defensive.
Speaking at the first round of inter-Korean talks in January 2018, for example, he sought to kick things off on a positive note by condemning “absurd” media reports that the two sides would be discussing denuclearization during those negotiations.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons, he stressed at the time, were only intended to “target the U.S.,” and said that while he hoped the talks would go smoothly, they could derail if the “press mislead” public opinion.
Later that year, too, furious at his South Korean counterparts’ accounts of negotiations to local press, Ri demanded that their closed-door conversations be broadcast live, a suggestion Seoul was forced to reject.
“Ri was infamous for his rough, unpolished, bully-like style during inter-Korean negotiations over the years,” ICG’s Duyeon Kim said. “If he’s given any real negotiating role with Washington, then American negotiators will be in for a ride.”
A BACKGROUND IN BLUSTER
Long before those talks, Ri had already harnessed a reputation as a hardliner, as well as a “right-hand man” to top official Kim Yong Chol, a fellow tough negotiator and ruthless military man.
Though he first engaged in inter-Korean military-to-military talks in 2006, Ri began to serve more prominently in the DPRK’s state apparatus in the wake of the 2010 sinking of the South Korean Cheonan naval corvette and attack on Yeonpyeong Island — for which his boss, Kim Yong Chol, has frequently been blamed.
“I have long thought of Ri as resident on the hard-nosed end of the spectrum of inter-Korean negotiators for the North,” Leiden University’s Chris Green said.
“Among the South Korean analytical community, he is seen as a close associate of Kim Yong Chol, who prior to 2018 was known primarily for his alleged role in two deadly attacks on the South in 2010.”
“If he’s given any real negotiating role with Washington, then American negotiators will be in for a ride.”
Ri has been reported to have stormed out of several inter-Korean meetings long before the 2018 thaw, most notably in 2011, when his delegation “walked out” of talks with South Korean military counterparts after just two days.
That year also saw him promoted to head of the director of the policy department of the powerful National Defense Commission, then North Korea’s highest executive body — a promotion which placed him at the heart of the country’s military decision-making apparatus and solidified his role in the country’s top brass.
“He has no diplomatic background,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University. “As far as I know his only negotiating hitherto has been with South Koreans.”
“And he’s a military man! As far as I know North Korea’s first ever foreign minister from the KPA?”
PROSPECTS FOR DIPLOMACY
It seems unlikely that Ri will emerge as a dovish pragmatist in his new role as foreign minister, but experts caution against reading his appointment as representing a significant change in stance from North Korea — suggesting it instead be seen as further confirmation of Pyongyang’s new, more hardline, stance.
The presence of the hardline Kim Yong Chol as the DPRK’s head envoy in talks with the U.S. in 2018, after all, appeared to have little impact on Pyongyang’s appetite for engagement with the U.S. — hence the spectacle of a North Korean spy boss being wined and dined by the U.S. Secretary of State in New York.
At the same time, the decision last year to replace Kim Yong Chol with Kim Myong Gil — by all accounts a worldly diplomat and “honest broker” with experience working with U.S. officials — did not stop Pyongyang’s ultimate decision to storm out of talks in Stockholm in October.
“Instructions always flow from the top, and [Ri] has always been playing a role assigned to him by the top leadership,” Leiden University’s Chris Green said. “Thus, while my impression of Ri as a rigid conservative may be a fair reflection of the man, that in itself doesn’t matter much.”
Others also point to the continued presence of seasoned negotiators in the North Korean diplomatic high command as evidence that Ri’s new role may not change too much about how Pyongyang deals with Washington.
“Two urbane experience diplomats suddenly off the scene. Replaced by one inexperienced bruiser.”
Front-and-center among these is Choe Son Hui, the country’s first vice foreign minister and known to extensively manage its relations with the U.S.
“Ms. Choe is still there and that means there is no big change in their policies,” explained Wang Son-taek, the YTN reporter. “In North Korea, vice ministers are sometimes known to have more power than ministers because the role of the minister is ceremonial.”
But while vice minister Choe — known to have close working relations with the now-outed foreign minister Ri Yong Ho — remains in place for the time being, and despite last year’s setbacks in diplomacy with the U.S., the past few weeks have also seen what appears to be a changing of the guard at the very top.
“The fact that Ri Su Yong is gone too is very telling,” Foster-Carter, of Leeds University, said, referring to recent revelations that the long-time stalwart of DPRK diplomacy may have been replaced.
“Two urbane experience diplomats suddenly off the scene. Replaced by one inexperienced bruiser.”
Decision-making in Pyongyang is a decidedly top-down process, with officials working on foreign policy likely given little room for movement beyond the orders from the Supreme Leader.
It was Ri’s more “softline” predecessor, don’t forget, who once suggested that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean — a move that would have almost certainly triggered a war with the U.S.
If Kim Jong Un’s speech to the ruling party plenum last month is anything to go by, North Korea’s relations with the U.S. appear set to continue their downward trajectory in the coming months — with tensions likely to escalate should Pyongyang go ahead with its promised unveiling of a new “strategic” weapon.
Ri Son Gwon, with his love of bluster, dramatic turns of phrase, and sarcastic put-downs, then, would seem the perfect diplomat as Pyongyang pursues its “new path” in the coming months.
But should relations suddenly warm and that “special relationship” between the two countries’ leaders produce a deal, Chris Green said, he would likely have little choice but to play nice.
“The die is never entirely cast. Under the right circumstances, Ri is more than capable of coming out all smiles.”
Edited by James Fretwell