The Korea Herald


Former NK ambassador likely to divide roles in US negotiations with Choe: experts

By Jo He-rim

Published : Jan. 27, 2019 - 16:14

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With a series of talks between the United States and North Korea being held in apparent preparation for their second summit, the appearance of a new figure in the North’s envoy team has triggered speculations on his role and the North’s direction in negotiations.

Kim Hyok-chol, a former North Korean Ambassador to Spain had accompanied the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol on his visit to Washington, appearing with the vice chairman in a meeting with US President Donald Trump on Jan. 18.

His appearance had triggered speculations that he may have come as a new negotiator in charge of US relations. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks on Jan. 22 regarding the bilateral meeting in Washington have also fueled such speculations. 

Kim Hyok-chol (Yonhap) Kim Hyok-chol (Yonhap)

“Special Representative Biegun had the opportunity to meet with his newly designated counterpart (when Kim Yong-chol visited Washington last week), where they were able to discuss some of the complicated issues towards achieving what the two leaders laid out back last June in Singapore,” Pompeo had said in a video conference to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.

When US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun was appointed in August to negotiate in talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui was widely perceived as his counterpart from the communist regime.

Kim, the North’s former ambassador to Spain, was expelled from the European country in September 2017, after Pyongyang conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 and launched a long-range ballistic missile over Japan on Sept. 15.

While not much has been revealed about Kim aside from his expulsion, Thae Yong-ho, the North’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who defected to the South in 2016, claimed Kim is a veteran strategic planner in foreign policy who comes from the elite family of a high-ranking official.

According to Thae, Kim majored in French at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, and entered the Foreign Ministry there in the early 2000s. Kim was the first ministry official to be promoted to a deputy ministerial rank in his 30s.

Kim’s father was a high-ranking official who worked in the international department of the North’s ruling party and served as an ambassador to Cambodia in the early 2000s.

“Kim is a strategic figure systematically trained by Ri Yong-ho (North’s foreign minister) and Kim Kye-gwan (North’s first vice foreign minister),” Thae explained in a post on his blog Friday.

Regarding Kim’s appearance, experts have differing views on Kim’s role and the communist regime’s direction in the negotiating process with the US.

“North Koreans have seemed to develop an allergy toward working level talks with the US regardless of counterpart. I think a lot of people are going to see this as a sign of further resistance by North Korea to effective working level engagement,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview with the Voice of America.

Gary Samore, a former White House official who participated in the 1994 North Korea nuclear agreement, also told the news outlet that Kim’s appointment was intended to adjust the level of negotiators, saying Choe is a “too senior official.”

“Choe outranks Stephen Biegun. I see that (the appointment of Kim) as an indication that the North Koreans have identified an official at Stephen Biegun’s level,” Samore said.

Thae, however, stressed that Kim would not be “replacing” Choe, as some claim, but that they would be dividing roles.

“Kim is likely to take charge of the bigger approach plans, such as building trust before denuclearization, and Choe will work on the details of each deal that is to be made with the US,” Thae said.

The North’s vice foreign minister had attended the bilateral or trilateral working-level meeting with Biegun and Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, in Sweden on Jan. 19.

Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, agreed they would both take on duties but said that Kim would be the negotiator dealing with details of the denuclearization process and Choe would take on more comprehensive agenda items.

“The denuclearization process is a very sensitive and technical topic and political at the same time. Each sequence of the denuclearization move should be carefully planned for North Korea,” Hong told The Korea Herald.

“Choe is a veteran negotiator who has participated in big summits from the past, so I believe it is more likely that Choe continues to take charge in drawing the bigger picture for the North while Kim focuses on planning the details of the denuclearization.”

By Jo He-rim (