[Newsmaker] Who will be NK’s key player in US-NK negotiations?

By Jung Min-kyung
  • Published : Mar 8, 2018 - 16:43
  • Updated : Mar 8, 2018 - 16:51
Among a crop of skillful North Korean negotiators Choe Son-hui, the country’s former Director General of Foreign Ministry’s North America Affairs is forecast to stand at the frontline of a new diplomatic tug-of-war with the United States. 

The then-head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s North American bureau, Choe Son-hui, speaks at the 2017 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference on Oct. 20, 2017. (Yonhap)

Earlier this week, North Korea offered to talk with the US on denuclearization, according to South Korea’s chief of the National Security Office, an abrupt shift from its previously hardline stance.

While mentioning Choe’s latest meeting with Russian energy officials, a North Korean state-run media on Tuesday dubbed her Vice Foreign Minister for the first time, a sign confirming her recent promotion, further solidifying her presence in the current diplomatic climate surrounding North Korea.

Experts are also highlighting Choe’s active role in North Korea’s newfound approach towards denuclearization and the US.

“Choe is someone who can directly talk with Kim Jong-un because she has earned Kim’s trust over the years,” Cho Han-bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification said.

“She is expected to play a key role in working-level talks leading up to higher-level talks between the US and North Korea and act as a bridge between the two nations,” the Seoul-based analyst added, while pointing to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong as possible delegates for the high-level talks.

Choe has served as an aide and interpreter at the six-party talks, which came after North Korea committed to denuclearization in 2003 and involved the US, North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. The talks, which lasted for six years, however, ended in failure after the North walked out in 2008.

Regarding the six-party talks, Choe reportedly spoke on behalf of North Korea in a non-proliferation conference in Moscow last year, stressing that Pyongyang will not return to any multilateral talks until it “deals with Washington” first. She also blamed the US hostile policy against the North for the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

More recent interactions with the US involve the release of an American student Otto Warmbier in 2017, who was being detained in Pyongyang at the time. Choe reportedly contacted the now-retired US special representative Joseph Yun in Norway last May to discuss the matter.

Choe is believed to have maintained contact with US officials although official Washington-Pyongyang communications have been largely severed since 2012.

She was also part of other high-level foreign interactions, including an August 2009 trip to Pyongyang by former US President Bill Clinton.

Amid the news of Choe’s rise to new ranks, experts are pointing out that it is not Pyongyang that’s experiencing difficulties handpicking its diplomatic point men, but rather Washington.

“It seems Washington is not ready to react properly and promptly at the moment and there is a chance that its policy of (maximum pressure and engagement) may receive criticism if it fails to react to the North’s recent move,” Hong Min, director of the North Korean studies division at the KINU said.

Hong also factored in the recent retirement of Joseph Yun, who was the Donald Trump administration’s point man on North Korea among negative elements that contribute to Washington’s lack of preparedness for talks at the moment.

By Jung Min-kyung (