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North Korea's new negotiation team in spotlight


Kim Jong-un's key aides wait during their leader's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at Panmunjeom on June 30. From left are Kim Chang-son,<strong></strong> in charge of protocol affairs; Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader's sister and first vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK); Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. Yonhap
Kim Jong-un's key aides wait during their leader's meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at Panmunjeom on June 30. From left are Kim Chang-son, in charge of protocol affairs; Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader's sister and first vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK); Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. Yonhap

By Do Je-hae

A new round of U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations are set to begin in a few weeks following the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Washington is widely expected to let Secretary of State Mike Pompeo manage the entire strategy for better deliverables. U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun is expected to back him up. Biegun is said to have been closely involved in fixing all the specifics of last week's Trump-Kim meeting.

There is a noticeable difference, however, in the line-up of North Korean negotiators.

US, North Korea consider building communication offices US, North Korea consider building communication offices 2019-07-03 16:59  |  Politics
In Hanoi, Pompeo's counterpart was Kim Yong-chol, who at the time of the Hanoi summit was serving as head of the United Front Department, tasked with South Korea affairs, of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), but he was replaced in April and was visibly absent during the DMZ meeting. He had been a core member of Kim's summit diplomacy, having accompanied the North Korean leader for talks with Trump, President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biegun's counterpart Kim Hyok-chol, a career diplomat and a nuclear specialist formerly involved in the six-party talks more than 10 years ago, was rumored to have been executed after the Hanoi summit but the reports were proved false when he later appeared in public.

On his way back to Washington, Pompeo confirmed that their counterparts would be officials from North Korea's foreign ministry. Although he did not specifically mention the names of the officials, it is widely speculated that U.S. top diplomat is referring to Ri Yong-ho, North Korean foreign minister since 2016, and Choe Son-hui, first vice minister of foreign affairs.

The transition from United Front Department to the foreign ministry in North Korea's main negotiating team has several important implications. The failed Hanoi summit, in which the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea walked away from the talks without reaching any agreement, may have underlined the need for North Korea to establish a team that knows the U.S. better, according to some experts.

A former top diplomat who declined to be named said that the transition from the United Front Department tasked with dealing with relations with South Korea to the foreign ministry reflects Pyongyang's intention to be much for detailed in proceeding with future working-level negotiations. The former foreign official added that the foreign ministry is more knowledgeable of the history of negotiations with the U.S. than the United Front Department.

In a recent TV interview, Kim Hyun-wook, professor of Korean National Diplomatic Academy, also pointed out Pyongyang's lack of awareness of the U.S. as one of the reasons that led to the failure of the Hanoi summit. "Kim Hyok-chol is a former ambassador to Spain, but he is a noted nuclear specialist who took part in drafting the six-party talks. But despite the nuclear expertise, this happened because North Korea did not know the U.S. very well," Kim said.

Foreign Minister Ri is well known to the international community as he has appeared in various multilateral diplomatic events. He also appeared alongside Kim during the June 30 meeting with Trump. He is expected to meet with the U.S. secretary of state Pompeo again during high-level talks in Bangkok next month.

Choe has emerged as center of attention during the bilateral talks. The key negotiators during the Hanoi summit were rumored to be either purged or executed, but Choe was actually promoted to first vice foreign minister after the Hanoi summit, becoming one of the most powerful women in North Korea. She was the one to speak on behalf of the North Korean leader at critical junctures, including an urgent press conference after Trump left Hanoi after the collapse of the talks with Kim. It was also Choe who responded to Trump's Tweet to "say hello" to Kim, describing it as a "very interesting suggestion."



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