The unexpected replacement of North Korea's top diplomat indicates that Pyongyang is picking up where it left off more than two years ago, or a new anti-U.S. hardline policy, according to diplomatic observers, Monday.
According to media reports, the North has appointed Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, as its foreign minister, sacking Ri Yong-ho, a career diplomat, apparently over the stalled nuclear talks with the U.S., despite three meetings between their leaders. The new foreign minister had been the North's key official for relations with South Korea.
The regime has yet to confirm the appointment; while the South Korean unification ministry said it was also trying to confirm the reports.
After a long-range missile test in November 2017, the Kim Jong-un regime had been committed to dialogue with Seoul and Washington. It participated in the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang the following year and the North Korea leader has met with U.S. President Donald Trump on three occasions, including one at Panmunjeom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
"The appointment of Ri, who had mainly been involved in inter-Korean military talks, as foreign minister signals that the North could ditch its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and seek to overcome international sanctions imposed on the country on its own," said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute.
"Therefore, we stand little chance of seeing nuclear talks between the North and the U.S., making significant headway and the former is likely to adopt a hardline policy toward the latter."
In his New Year address, the North Korean leader said he saw no reason to stick to his commitment to suspend nuclear and long-range missile tests and would soon show off a "new strategic weapon."
In addition, Kim Kye-gwan, a foreign ministry adviser, told the U.S., Jan. 11, that denuclearization dialogue would only be resumed when Washington fully accepted Pyongyang's demands.
Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said in an interview that as Ri is a key figure representing the North Korean military and a hardliner against the South, his appointment is a symbolic reshuffle that will show the North's determination to put Kim's words into action.
Considering the new North Korean foreign minister's past career, some speculate that the North may be committed to improving ties with the South, but many political observers do not agree with this.
"His job is dealing with affairs with foreign countries except for South Korea, so although Ri will take the position, there will be little room for him to get involved with Seoul," Cheong said.
Another expert pointed out that the United Front Department is tasked with relations with South Korea, not the foreign ministry.