North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong’s visit to the U.S. in mid-September to give a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, which convenes on Sept. 16, will be the first visit by the communist state’s foreign minister in 15 years.
There are already speculations about the rare visit. Ri will not be addressing a friendly audience at the U.N. It is widely expected that Ri will have to respond in some form to the March report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, which condemned the regime for its crimes against humanity and called for urgent action by the international community, including referral to the International Criminal Court.
The North Korean regime has so far denied any human rights abuses, but in face of the evidence to the contrary, the international community expects Pyongyang to make some declarations on how it will improve the situation, which has been described as without parallel in the contemporary world. Other issues that Ri will have to face at the U.N. include North Korea’s nuclear development and missile launches.
It would be unlikely for Ri, given his stature and the rarity of such visits, to leave the U.S. without meeting with U.S. officials. Appointed to the top foreign ministry post in April, Ri is a close confidant of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He debuted on the international scene last month at the ASEAN Regional Forum, the largest security conference in the region, holding separate meetings with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. It is speculated that Ri, who enjoys considerable power and Kim’s trust, may have been tasked with improving Pyongyang’s relations with Washington, including the resumption of the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s denuclearization, stalled since 2008, during his upcoming U.S. visit.
There have been signs that Pyongyang and Washington have opened a dialogue. A report last month, unconfirmed by the U.S. State Department, indicated that Washington officials may have secretly traveled to Pyongyang on Aug. 16. It was speculated that the visit may have been aimed at securing the release of three U.S. citizens held by North Korea, including Kenneth Bae, who was captured in 2012 and is now serving a 15-year sentence at a labor camp for “hostile acts” against the state.
Meanwhile, the White House on Sunday reiterated its stance that Pyongyang must demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization through action if it wants to reopen negotiations. Patrick Ventrell, a National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement to the Korean press that while the U.S. remains open to dialogue with North Korea, it will continue to judge North Korea by its actions, not its words.
The statement, which came amid reports of a clandestine visit by U.S. officials to Pyongyang and the announcement of Ri’s visit to the U.S., is a reminder to Pyongyang that Washington wants actions before any negotiations can take place. The statement also serves to calm concerns here that Seoul may be excluded from direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
With Ri’s visit to the U.S. slated for mid-September and Head of National Security Office Kim Kwan-jin’s Washington visit, including a meeting with White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice, reported to be planned for around Chuseok, September is expected to be a critical month for defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Adding to the possibility that some sort of a breakthrough may be possible is Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-se’s visit to the U.S. to deliver a speech at the U.N. General Assembly.
Whether the flurry of diplomatic activities will yield tangible results remains to be seen, but a fine-tuning of Seoul and Washington’s North Korea policy is in order so that the two allies can speak with one voice when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang.