North Korea May Assign First Vice Foreign Minister to Handle South Korea Affairs

Seoul - In a recent development, a Seoul official indicated that North Korea might appoint the first vice foreign minister to oversee inter-Korean affairs, amid signals that the country is dismantling agencies responsible for managing relations with South Korea. This move is seen as a demonstration of North Korea's growing hostility towards the South.

According to Yonhap News Agency, a former North Korean diplomat and now a special adviser to South Korea's unification minister, North Korea could consider filling the role with Ri Son-gwon, the head of the United Front Department (UFD), which has historically been tasked with inter-Korean relations within the ruling party. The speculation arises after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's directive at a year-end party meeting to treat inter-Korean relations as those between "two states hostile to each other" and his subsequent order to dissolve related agencies.

The position of the first vice foreign minister, the second-highest post in the North Korean foreign ministry, has been vacant or unreported since Choe Son-hui's promotion to foreign minister in 2022. Given Choe's limited familiarity with UFD operations, North Korea might leverage the first vice foreign minister's role to manage South Korean affairs, potentially appointing Ri to support Choe.

This speculation gained traction after Choe and Ri participated in a January meeting aimed at discussing the dissolution of agencies managing inter-Korean affairs. State media did not specify Ri's title during this meeting but described him as an official responsible for South Korean affairs, suggesting the possible abolition of the UFD.

Ko Young-hwan also mentioned the potential transfer of veteran UFD officials to foreign ministry units similar to the national unification department, which is believed to have managed North Korea's policy towards South Korea until the mid-1990s.

Furthermore, citing an unnamed North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea, Ko revealed North Korea's plans to close 15 of its diplomatic missions, including nine that have either already been closed or are in the process of shutting down. This move is part of North Korea's response to its economic challenges, which have already led to the closure of its diplomatic missions in several countries, including Hong Kong and Libya.

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