North Korea Negotiator Disappears As Kim Prepares for Biden Challenge

The hawkish North Korean foreign minister has disappeared from public view, amid reports that dictator Kim Jong Un is planning to replace him with a defter negotiator as Pyongyang prepares to face a new American administration.

Foreign minister Ri Son Gwon has not been seen in public since August, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported. South Korea's Yonhap news agency cited officials in Seoul who said they are keeping "a close eye" on developments if indeed this is the predicted shakeup.

Ri took over the role in January, touted as a hard liner with conservative views on engagement with South Korea and the U.S. He replaced Ri Yong Ho, a veteran negotiator fluent in English who had decades of experience working with his American counterparts.

Ri's appointment was seen as a signal that Pyongyang would adopt a less cooperative policy towards Seoul and Washington, D.C. amid disappointment that the grand promises made by President Donald Trump and Kim at their Singapore summit have not come to fruition.

But with Trump leaving the White House, the regime in Pyongyang—and in the capitals of America's rivals the world over—is turning its attention to President-Elect Joe Biden and how his team will approach the intractable issue of sanctions and nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

The South's Unification Ministry told Yonhap: "There has been no official announcement yet, but we will keep a close eye on the related situation." Still, the ministry said Ri "is maintaining his position as the foreign minister and is continuing with his activities."

Ri, a former army colonel, oversaw inter-Korean affairs before he was appointed as foreign minister. He was last seen publicly at a session of the ruling party's Central Committee on August 19, Chosun Ilbo said.

But his hawkish approach might undermine Pyongyang's efforts to squeeze concessions out of Biden, though the president-elect has repeatedly said he is committed to North Korea denuclearization despite some experts suggesting this approach is defunct given North Korea's established nuclear arsenal.

South Korean former Vice Unification Minister Kim Hyung-suk told Chosun Ilbo that Ri's appointment "was aimed at showing a tough stance rather than taking an interest in further talks with Washington. Now the regime will replace him with a person who can talk with the U.S."

The president-elect has vowed to be tougher on Kim that Trump. During the election campaign, Biden called Kim a "thug" and said the "days of cozying up to dictators are over."

Biden was part of President Barack Obama's team that chose an approach of "strategic patience," waiting and hoping that sanctions would force Pyongyang to comply with American demands.

Northern diplomats will have significant damage to repair. Pyongyang has been dismissive of Biden, and last year branded the president-elect a "rabid dog" that needed to be "beaten to death with a stick."

Ri Son Gwon, North Korea, Kim, Biden
North Korean foreign minister Ri Son Gwon is pictured during a meeting with his South Korean counterpart at the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas on January 9, 2018. KOREA POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty