N. Korea’s new foreign minister Ri Son Gwon: just a figurehead?

New appointment may be part of North Korea's plans to draw out US-North Korean negotiations through 2020 and beyond, experts say

In a major reshuffle of senior leadership, North Korea recently appointed Ri Son Gwon, former chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), as North Korea’s new minister of foreign affairs.

News of his appointment came as NK News reported that foreign diplomats in Pyongyang had been notified of the dismissal of Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister on Jan. 18. 

Kim Hyong Jun, North Korea’s former ambassador to Russia, was also reportedly appointed head of the international affairs department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which functions as the “control tower” for the foreign affairs ministry. 

In light of these appointments, experts speculate that North Korea is planning major adjustments in its foreign policy, including policies concerning US-North Korean denuclearization talks. 

Some experts even argue that the North Korean military’s hardline stance on nuclear weapons will have a greater influence over the country’s negotiations with the US.


Ri Yong Ho, who had directed foreign policy as the Minister of Foreign Affairs since May 2016, and Ri Su Yong, the veteran diplomat who was at the helm of the WPK’s international affairs department, appear to have been fired. 

Considering that his predecessors generally served terms ranging from five to 10 years, Ri Yong Ho’s dismissal is likely a consequence of his role in the US-North Korea talks, which have fallen into an impasse following the breakdown of the Hanoi summit in February of last year.  

While the 79-year-old Ri Su Yong’s dismissal could potentially be seen as the timely retirement of an elder statesman, the fact that it coincides with Ri Yong Ho’s removal suggests that he also is being held responsible for deadlocked US-North Korea talks. 

“Within North Korea’s political structure, Ri Su Yong guided diplomatic strategy from behind the scenes, with Ri Yong Ho playing a more general role. Choe Son Hui, for her part, supervised working-level activities,” Kim In-tae, a senior researcher at the South Korean Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), told Daily NK on Monday. “It seems likely that the dismissals of Ri Su Yong and Ri Yong Ho were due to problems in how they conducted their work.” 

Kim added that, normally, the newly appointed head of the international affairs department, in this case, Kim Hyong Jun, would move to reshuffle personnel in the foreign ministry. 

“Ri Son Gwon has no diplomatic experience and his appointment to head of the ministry complicates reshuffling personnel in the ministry,” Kim said. 


Choe Son Hui, the first vice minister of foreign affairs, is both a member of the WPK Central Committee and the State Affairs Commission. Thus, despite her lower ranking within the foreign ministry, her political clout surpasses that of Ri Son Gwon.

It is possible to imagine that Choe and Ri will clash over their roles as Ri settles into his new position as foreign affairs minister.

“Officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have a great deal of self-respect and pride,” a former high-level North Korean official told Daily NK. “Because Kim Jong Un appointed Ri to the position, nobody will be able to openly object. If Ri Son Gwon was to insert himself into diplomacy, however, there could be friction.” 

In other words, grievances with Ri’s ministerial appointment may manifest as work-related conflicts within the foreign ministry. 

Park Won-gon, a professor of international studies at Handong University, told Daily NK that there’s a high likelihood that Choe will continue conducting working-level activities and Ri Song Gwon will play only a symbolic role. He bases his theory on the fact that Ri Yong Ho, the ousted minister of foreign affairs, did not manage working-level duties during US-North Korean denuclearization talks. 

There is precedent in North Korea’s recent diplomatic history for a similar division of roles in the foreign ministry. In the mid-2000s, Paek Nam Sun, North Korea’s minister of foreign affairs, was mainly a figurehead while Kang Sok Ju, the first vice minister, managed the foreign ministry’s important duties. 

While Kang did exercise his authority with backing from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, however, he did not have a higher political standing than Paek. This is in stark contrast to the gap in political status between Choe and Ri. If this situation proves to be problematic, Ri could plausibly be given an elevated political title.


With the replacement of pro-engagement Ri Yong Ho with hardliner Ri Son Gwon, some believe that US-North Korean denuclearization talks are now on even shakier ground. 

In US political circles, many anticipate increased tensions with North Korea. This is in part because Ri Son Gwon is known to be close to Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman of the WPK Central Committee. 

Kim exhibited an uncompromising and heavy-handed attitude at last year’s Hanoi summit between US and North Korean leaders, although he was later reprimanded for his actions. 

“North Korea is using personnel appointments to show the US that if they do not guarantee upfront North Korea’s right to exist and develop economically, they [North Korea] will not budge on any of the issues relating to denuclearization,” Park, the professor, told Daily NK.

“By putting hardliner Ri Son Gwon at the top of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, North Korea appears to be shoring up a hardline position in terms of its international diplomacy,” he added. 

Park further argued that the US will find North Korea’s new foreign minister a difficult person to deal with. 

“North Korea appears to have long-term plans to draw out US-North Korea negotiations until after the US presidential elections in November or even into the next year,” he added.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Ri Su Yong was 85 years old, not 79 years old (based on Ri’s birth year of 1940) as stated in South Korea’s Ministry of Unification North Korea Information Portal.