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View more articles by Wang Son-taek
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
The coronavirus is affecting every corner of the world, and millions are adjusting to a new life of social distancing and self-isolation.
Foreign relations is one field most severely affected by this wave of illness. Countries have shut their borders and thousands of travelers have been isolated in various places, with charter flights sent to evacuate them.
North Korea is no exception from these global trends, and the nation has indeed taken drastic measures, closing its border in the first few weeks of the worldwide coronavirus crisis.
However, strange movements in North Korean foreign policy, unrelated to the novel coronavirus, were afoot even before January.
The first abnormality came after December last year, with the sudden disappearance of Choe Son Hui, the DPRK’s first vice foreign minister.
This was followed by the reemergence of Kim Yo Jong, the First Vice Department Director of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee, as an important spokesperson for the Supreme Leader.
The answers to questions like where Choe is, why she disappeared, who has she been replaced with and what has changed, could provide us with some clues as to what North Korea’s foreign policy is and will be going forward.
NO SHOW FOR THREE MONTHS
Choe was active until the end of December. She visited Moscow from November 19 to 25, where she discussed improving relations between the two countries with counterparts from the Russian foreign ministry. She bashed the U.S. for betraying North Korea in denuclearization talks when she got a chance to speak to the media.
It’s safe to say that, around this time, she was one of the country’s major spokespeople. She can even be seen in a group photograph at the end of year’s party plenum.
She has not appeared in North Korean media since then. It was Kim Kye Gwan, advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who delivered a statement on January 11 responded to a letter from President Trump to Chairman Kim. It was Kim Yo Jong who then reported on March 21 about another letter from President Trump.
It was Ri Kil Song, one of several vice foreign ministers and in charge of Asia affairs, who delivered a statement on the first anniversary of the Chairman’s visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.
All those events were pretty much foreign affairs issues, and Choe could have responded herself, being the most powerful official in the foreign ministry.
But she did not, in sharp contrast with her busy days in 2019, when she led a negotiation team in Hanoi, was promoted to first vice foreign minister and became a member of the State Affairs Commission, served as a close advisors to the leader in the surprise meeting at Panmunjom in June, and represented the country in major statements in which she criticized the U.S.
Her high point in 2019 was when she attended Chairman Kim’s on-site guidance visit to Mount Kumgang in October. There didn’t seem to be a clear reason as to why she was present for what was basically a domestic affair, other than that she enjoyed the leader’s deep trust.
RESHUFFLE IN THE FOREIGN MINISTRY
The sudden disappearance of Choe should be interpreted as a sign, then, that she may have lost that trust, and one notable development during the period of her fading was the coinciding shrinking presence of the foreign ministry itself.
The head of that ministry is now Ri Son Gwon, who has minimal experience in foreign affairs matters. It was strange to see the experts Ri Su Yong and Ri Yong Ho being pushed aside as outsiders were hired or promoted.
The rise of the United Front Department (UFD) — from which Ri Son Gwon hails — and the decline of the foreign ministry was dramatic.
About a year ago, the negotiation strategy North Korea used at the Hanoi summit was reviewed and changed after one and a half months of silence.
Chairman Kim blamed the UFD and took disciplinary measures against some of the Hanoi negotiators, including department director Kim Yong Chol, chief negotiator Kim Hyok Chol, and high-ranking party official Kim Song Hye.
After the policy review, the foreign ministry moved into the driver’s seat, and Choe became a key player in that new foreign policy lineup.
The post-review policy line was brinkmanship diplomacy. North Korea returned to its old negotiation style, maintaining it would never compromise with the U.S. unless Washington abandoned its “hostile policy” against them.
In Stockholm, Sweden, North Korea stubbornly pushed this brinkmanship diplomacy. This did not produce any concessions from the U.S., instead causing frustrated negotiators to wonder why their North Korean counterparts had participated in good discussions with them during talks, only to condemn them hours later.
Brinkmanship diplomacy, which continued until the end of the year, met a dead end. Since the October negotiations proved fruitless, North Korea ominously suggested that they might send the U.S. a “Christmas present” unless it came to the table with a new approach.
That threats, however, was not successful, only succeeding in suspending a mid-size U.S.-ROK combined military exercise.
Chairman Kim then convened a rare plenary meeting of the WPK Central Committee, skipping the traditional new year’s address. This implied that he was growing wary of the foreign ministry’s failed brinkmanship diplomacy and wanted a new approach.
It seems too early to tell what kind of strategy Kim Jong Un will now adopt.
There are, however, some things outside observers can deduce:
The disappearance of Choe Son Hui may signal that Chairman Kim is considering taking a new path in foreign policy and negotiations with the U.S. Though this situation may add a sense of uncertainty and fluidity on the diplomatic front, it might also open the door to another round of diplomatic initiatives.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham