Kim Jong Un has sacked North Korea’s top diplomat, according to an unconfirmed local report, in a move that analysts say could spell a tougher stance from Pyongyang in nuclear talks with the US.
Ri Yong Ho, the country’s foreign minister since 2016 who has played a central role in relations with Washington, has been replaced by Ri Son Gwon, a top official known for taking a hard line approach on foreign relations, according to NK News, a North Korea-focused information service.
The report, based on unnamed sources in Pyongyang, has not been independently confirmed by the Financial Times. The US state department did not immediately comment on the events.
Analysts said the change of senior personnel suggested that the North Korean leader was readying for a tougher approach in its dealings with the US after Washington failed to ease economic sanctions.
Soo Kim, a former North Korea analyst with the CIA, said Ri Son Gwon, previously the chairman of the agency that oversees inter-Korean relations, was “a hard knock and knows how to press the right buttons to get his opponent riled up . . . decorum and courtesy are thrown out the window”.
Ms Kim, now at Rand Corporation, a US-based think-tank, added: “Not that the North Korean regime has ever maintained the minimum level of decorum and decency in dealing with Washington, but if confirmed, Ri’s latest appointment just means more tawdry, offensive and incendiary rhetoric and escalation of tensions for Washington in the months to come.”
The change comes against a backdrop of stalled negotiations between the US and North Korea, with Pyongyang demanding that sanctions be lifted and Washington insisting that North Korea first verifiably end its nuclear programme and give up its store of weapons.
In efforts to convince Mr Kim to change his stance, Donald Trump has met the North Korean leader three times over the past two years in a series of unprecedented overtures by a US president. The US and South Korea have also downsized joint military operations on the Korean peninsula and, in further gestures aimed at easing tensions, Seoul has sought to boost inter-Korean co-operation.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said it was clear Mr Kim wanted to see progress on easing sanctions. But he urged caution before “jumping to conclusions” about the change of foreign minister, given the opaque nature of power struggles among the North Korean leadership.
“There might be some kind of bureaucratic infighting, we have no clue . . . We know very little about what is going on with the top leadership and that has been the case for half a century,” said Mr Lankov.
Still, David Kim, a former US state department official working on non-proliferation issues, said Ri Son Gwon’s appointment was in line with “a shift back towards a hard line policy against the US”, as outlined by the North Korean leader late last year, but, he noted that the new foreign minister has experience in dealing with the US and South Korea.
“The message to the US is: ‘Look, the ship is sailing away quickly, we can turn back and try to find a diplomatic solution or we can just as easily go back to the days of fire and fury’,” he said, referencing the dangerous escalation of missile testing and threats by the US president in 2017.
Last week, Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, warned that North Korea and the US did not “have much time left” for talks ahead of the US presidential election.
Amid the impasse, many experts are worried that Pyongyang will restart nuclear and long-range missile tests this year.