By Yoshihiro Makino, the Asahi Shimbun senior staff writer
The North Korea’s Workers’ Party convened the General Assembly of the Central Committee in Pyongyang from Feb. 8 to Feb. 11. The five-year economic plan, adopted by the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party only a month before, was revised, and the director of the party’s economic affairs department lost his job. These events highlighted the economic turmoil the country is suffering under the international sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid this, the promotion of Ri Son Gwon, a hardliner, caught the eye of observers.
Surprise promotion to Political Bureau
The Central Committee appointed Ri to the party’s Political Bureau, an exclusive group of about 20 of North Korea’s political elites. Ri was given a Politburo seat vacated by Kim Tu Il, the director removed from the economic affairs department. Considering Ri’s career, the promotion was extraordinary.
Ri represented North Korea at high-level North-South military talks in Panmunjom. He was promoted to Senior Colonel (Brigadier) in March 2010. After serving as the chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Homeland, Ri became North Korea’ Foreign Minister in January 2020. Most North Korean ministers who hold military rank are a general or equivalent [which Ri is not]. For example, Defense Minister Kim Jong Gwan, a Politburo member, is an army general who was made a major general in 2007.
In accomplishments, Ri hasn’t performed at a level that would have warranted the recent promotion. Although he led the two Koreas’ dialogue as the reunification committee chairman, he failed to secure a satisfactory amount of economic assistance from the South. Ri doesn’t have diplomatic experience, either. Even as foreign minister, his work reportedly centers around formalities such as sending out congratulatory telegrams to friendly overseas nations.
Ri does excel, however, at presenting a “hardline” posture vis-à-vis South Korea and the U.S. During a North-South summit meeting in Pyongyang in September 2018, Ri spotted Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Jae Yong and others dining at Okryu-gwan (a Korean noodle restaurant) and spat out, “How can you sit there enjoying a bowl of noodles!?” in criticism of the lack of progress in two countries’ economic cooperation.
In June 2020, Foreign Minister Ri issued an angry statement on the two-year anniversary of the U.S.-North Korea summit meeting in Singapore. “We will never again give the U.S. leader points about which he can boast his achievements without paying the cost.”
“The North Korean leadership is not expecting much diplomatic success from Ri Son Gwon,” a former senior party member who defected from the North explains. “Rather, Ri is used as a symbol of the hardline stance North Korea is prepared to take. Once the U.S. and North Korea begin to engage in dialogue, people like former foreign minister Ri Yong Ho will likely be reinstalled.”
Anxiety and dissatisfaction are mounting inside North Korea. The recent revision of the five-year economic plan appeared to have been brought about because the departments concerned strongly opposed the original goals as unattainable, while the public was deeply dissatisfied with the goals, seeing them as too modest and insufficient for improving their livelihoods. Although North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un removed the economic chief and revised the goals, such changes are unlikely to solve the country’s problems.
The Biden administration is rethinking U.S. toward North Korea, and unconditional easing of sanctions will not be considered for the time being. The only path left to North Korea seems to be the same path it has pursued repeatedly in the past: military provocations. Meanwhile, the party’s foreign affairs department director, Kim Song Nam, moved up in ranks and became a candidate to join the Politburo. He had been a Chinese interpreter for Kim Jong Un and other party leaders. “Kim Song Nam’s promotion may reflect the party’s intention to move closer to China, as China could play the role of guardian in North Korea’s face-off with the U.S. and South Korea,” says an informed source.
U.S.-South Korea Joint Military Exercises are scheduled for the beginning of March. North Korea may use the exercises as an excuse for launching a “satellite transporting rocket.” Ri’s unexpected promotion signaled to the U.S. the path North Korea has chosen.