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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Changing of the Guard in New York

by | February 15th, 2014 | 07:00 am

Hankyoreh has a short, informative story on a changing of the guard at the DPRK’s UN Mission in New York. Sin Son-ho, 65, has stepped down and will be replaced by Ja Song-nam, 59, a bureau director from the Foreign Ministry with experience at the UN mission in 2000 and as Ambassador to the UK from 2007-2011.

Equally if not more interesting are shifts in other positions dealing with North America. Han Song-ryol, 59, is one of the most respected and experienced North Korean diplomats, having served as former chief of the Foreign Ministry’s Americas Division and assistant head of its North American Affairs Bureau. As deputy ambassador to the UN, from 2002-2006 and again from 2009-2013, he was a central player in the so-called “New York channel”: a set of ongoing semi-official, foundation and private conversations with American counterparts. Han returned to Pyongyang at the end of last year to assume the position of Director General of the North American Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Ministry.

That position had been held since 2005 by Ri Gun, now 68, who was also a frequent member of North Korean negotiating teams, including in the Six Party Talks and track-two dialogues such as the Northeast Asian Cooperation Dialogue (organized by Prof. Susan Shirk out of UCSD). The Hankyoreh cites “sources” to the effect that Ri Gun has been given the position of ambassador to the Congo, a pretty clear demotion.

It will be interesting to watch if North Korea continues its recent experiments with public diplomacy using the UN platform. We commented at some length on the Sin Son Ho press conference of last July because it contained an argument about the illegitimacy of the UN Command that reflected North Korea’s odd and selective legalism. His more recent press conference—covered by North Korea Tech here—was much more disappointing. We made the mistake of watching it, hoping for some nugget of insight. But Sin Son Ho did little more than repeat verbatim the recent NDC proposal before taking a series of questions which he then refused to answer.

We have seen an uptick in such activity elsewhere as well, not all of it with the intended PR effect. At the end of January, DPRK Ambassador to China Ji Jae Ryong gave a rare press conference in Beijing. Again, it mostly just reiterated the recent North Korean offer. But an interview by Sky News of Hyun Hak Bong, DPRK’s ambassador to Britain, got attention for reasons that Pyongyang might have wished were left alone; video can be found here. The Ambassador confirmed that Jong Song Thaek had committed multiple crimes and had been killed by firing squad. When asked about rumors that his entire family had been killed as well, he initially said that this was mere propaganda. But after stumbling a bit, he demurred that he didn’t in fact know; that was chilling in and of itself.