Ri Son Gwon was confirmed to be the new Minister of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK on the 21st of January 2020. The replacement of Ri Yong Ho, a career diplomat, with this hard-line military careerist signals a shift in DPRK foreign policy in the aftermath of the failure to reach a denuclearisation agreement with Washington in 2019.
Ri Yong Ho is thought to have lost his position during the final day of the December 2019 Plenary meeting of the Worker’s Party Central Committee along with Ri Su Yong, former Worker’s Party International Department Director. His replacement is one of many signs that the DPRK is undergoing a policy-shift with a potential return to a byungjin-style political line.
The removal of Ri Yong Ho is likely due to the failure of talks with the United States which had been under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since the collapse of the Hanoi Summit. Kim Yong Chol handed control over to the ministry and, effectively, over to Ri Yong Ho. The lack of results from the ministry were likely instrumental in making this decision. Kim Yong Chol was also replaced as Director of the United Front Department (which deals with relations with south Korea) by Jang Kum Chol; perhaps foreshadowing Ri Yong Ho’s replacement, the appointment of a relatively inexperienced diplomat to replace a man who’s career was built on inter-Korean relations, hinted at the start of a shift in foreign policy against Seoul, which later turned out to be accurate.
So, who is Ri Son Gwon?
Inter-Korean Military Talks
Ri Son Gwon’s first diplomatic appearance was as a representative at the ‘2nd Inter-Korean General-Level Military Talks’ at Mt. Seorak in June 2004. The meeting resulted in an agreement to prevent naval clashes in the West Sea, the cessation of propaganda activities along the Military Demarcation Line in the DMZ and the elimination of “propaganda tools”. (The full report from the South Korean MOU can be found here)
Ri was a delegate to the 36th and 37th inter-Korean military working-level talks in 2008 before being appointed the Head Delegate for negotiations with Seoul over the issue of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Ri Son Gwon’s early career was dominated by military diplomacy
38th inter-Korean military talks
He later led the delegation to the the 38th inter-Korean military working-level talks in September 2010. Along with his two delegates, Col. Jon Chang Je & Col. Hong Sok Il, Ri took an aggressive line against the southern representatives who had called the meeting to discuss the sinking of the South Korean naval ship the Cheonan in March. The DPRK side argued against the South’s conclusion that it was responsible for the sinking as well as attacking the ongoing issue of propaganda leaflets which had been distributed by the south over the DMZ. The DPRK demanded to send it’s own inspection team to the Cheonan wreck and the talks ended without any agreement.
39th inter-Korean military talks
In the aftermath of the shelling of Yonpyongdo, an island controlled by the south off the coast of South Hwanghae Province, the government in Seoul called for a working-level military talk to discuss both the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombardment of the island. The southern side requested a high ranking official such as defence minister, however, Ri Son Gwon was appointed to lead the northern side in the talks.
In similar style to his debut meeting, Ri refused to accept the blame for the Cheonan incident and attacked Seoul, blaming them for bringing the Yonpyongdo incident upon themselves by using the island as a “source of provocations”. Having announced Pyongyang’s positions on both matters, he left.
Both these events demonstrated Ri Son Gwon’s hard line attitude towards the south. With both these examples on his record, he himself became symbolic of the more hard-line officials in Pyongyang. This legacy would later contrast sharply with other foreign ministers. At the time of the talks, the incumbent minister was Pak Ui Chun, a career diplomat who had served in the ministry of foreign affairs since 1973 having studied at the international relations university.
In 2012, Ri was appointed Vice-director of the Policy Department of the National Defence Commission and later chaired another inter-Korean summit on the Kaesong Industrial Complex issue. In 2014, he was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly as a deputy for the first time and was later promoted to Director of the Policy Department of the National Defence Commission.
By 2016, Ri held the position of ‘Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country’ and ‘Vice-Chairman of the Northern Preparation Committee for Joint Meeting for Korean Peace and Unification without Interference’. These new political positions cemented his role as an important figure in Pyongyang’s relationship with Seoul. It also signalled the potential for a harsher line against South Korea since his somewhat-aggressive stance against Seoul had been apparent during his previous meetings with military officials from the southern side.
This later came to be accurate as 2017 saw a significant deterioration of the inter-Korean relationship and an increase in tensions with the United States and International Community. It was in the midst of this that Ri Son Gwon joined the Supreme People’s Assembly Diplomatic Commission.
In January 2018, after the Marshal Kim Jong Un gave his New Year’s Address in which he encouraged dialogue with the south, Ri Son Gwon announced, in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), that the hotline at Panmunjom would be reopened.
On the 9th of January 2018, a delegation, headed by Ri, met with southern counterparts to discuss the possibility of North Korean athletes participating in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. These talks were the first sign of friendly diplomacy between the country since the 2017 crisis which saw high tensions and strong rhetoric fly between the countries.
Ri Son Gwon later joined the delegation to the Winter Olympics alongside Kim Yo Jong and then-President of the SPA Presidium Kim Yong Nam.
Ri Son Gwon led numerous delegations to talks with their southern counterparts during the 2018 detente
Later in the year, Ri led a delegation to discuss the upcoming summit between President Moon Jae-in and Marshal Kim Jong Un. He later attended the summit alongside other political heavyweights in his capacity as the Chairman of the CPRC. At the time, the CPRC was the primary agency through which the DPRK engaged with Seoul. Since the government does not recognise South Korea as a soverign state, it is not within the remit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, effectively putting Ri Son Gwon in charge of north-south relations on behalf of Pyongyang. The CPRC is a branch of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s United Front Department which was headed at the time by Kim Yong Chol who took a leading role in US-DPRK relations simultaneously.
He led numerous delegations to meetings with South Korea during 2018, however, seemed to disappear throughout 2019 as negotiations began to falter. He was re-elected as a deputy to the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly in March 2019.
2019/2020: Minister of Foreign Affairs
During the long-awaited December 2019 plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea – Ri Yong Ho, the incumbent Minister for Foreign Affairs, was noticeably absent from the Central Committee official photo. This led to speculation that he had been replaced as part of a reshuffle at the top of the party. It was later announced officially that Ri Son Gwon, appointed to the Central Committee as an alternate member in 2018, had been appointed his successor.
Whilst, at time of writing, his tenure as FM has barely begun, his appointment is likely a signal to the world that the time of calm negotiations is ending and a new chapter in foreign relations has begun. Throughout late-2019, the DPRK warned of an end-of-year deadline for Washington to come forward with a new negotiating stance; this didn’t happen. Many have speculated that 2020 will see Pyongyang take a much harsher line against its enemies in Washington and Seoul and possibly even a return to Byungjin, the policy which saw the DPRK focus on developing the economy alongside its national defence forces.
As with all things DPRK, how Ri Son Gwon will act as minister of Foreign Affairs is currently limited to mere speculation; only time will tell.
Sources: NKPro, Ministry of Unification, Special Office for Inter-Korean Dialogue of the MOU, Rodong Sinmun (and other KCNA affiliates)