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Experts: North Korea’s Purge of Top Official Shows Loyalty May Be Insufficient

FILE - North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 29, 2018, at UN headquarters in New York.
FILE - North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 29, 2018, at UN headquarters in New York.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s purge of former Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, who was instrumental in two summits with the U.S. in 2018-19, could have sent “a shock wave” through the ranks of Pyongyang’s diplomats, said experts.

If Ri was executed, as some unconfirmed reports have suggested, the shock would be even greater.

Ri disappeared from public view two years ago, prompting speculation about his fate. The respected diplomat had played a key role in the summits between North Korean leader Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019.

He was last seen at a Central Committee meeting of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party in December 2019. Ri was last mentioned by North Korea state media in April 2020, when he was removed from the State Affairs Commission, a top decision-making body.

The National Intelligence Service of South Korea said Jan. 5 it had determined that Ri was purged, but added it was uncertain whether he was executed.

In June 2022, Choe Son Hui, formerly the first vice minister of foreign affairs, was assigned to fill the post Ri had occupied.

Ri was seen as a respectable diplomat and loyal aid to Kim, so a purge would have startled many within North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to experts.

“If Ri Yong Ho has indeed been purged, and particularly if he has been executed, it will likely send a shock wave through the ranks of DPRK’s diplomats,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea.

North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

"If someone as prominent, loyal and capable as Ri can be removed, then the same fate could befall anyone in the current North Korean hierarchy. I suspect that some North Korean diplomats are right now wondering about their own futures and considering their options," continued Revere.

Ri accompanied Kim to the summits with Trump and, after the talks collapsed in Hanoi, announced at a press conference that Trump had rejected a proposal made by Kim. Trump said he walked out of the summit after a disagreement over a deal with the North Korean leader.

Recalling Ri’s participation at the summits, John Bolton, a White House national security adviser during the Trump administration, said Ri “didn’t say very much” at the talks as “Kim did pretty much all the talking.”

FILE - North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho gets into a car at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, Sept. 19, 2017.
FILE - North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho gets into a car at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, Sept. 19, 2017.

Bolton said Kim may have purged Ri because he was “dissatisfied with the outcome” of the Hanoi summit.

“It may have been his advice, his prediction about what would happen in Hanoi and not anything that he himself did,” said Bolton. “It’s a dangerous place to have a career next to [Kim].”

Kim offered dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions that had been imposed on North Korea. The U.N. Security Council successively imposed heavy sanctions on North Korea beginning after its first nuclear test in 2006.

Ken Gause, an expert on North Korean leadership and the director of strategy, policy, plans and programs division special project at the Center for Naval Analyses, said, “You had a failure in Hanoi, and someone had to take the blame for that.”

“There would have been a certain amount of shock or surprise” over Ri’s ouster within the diplomatic circle in North Korea, Gause said. “It could have been meant to send a message to the diplomatic corps.”

Gause does not think Ri was executed as it is uncommon for North Korea to execute someone from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, although senior military officials have been executed.

Ri was appointed as the minister of foreign affairs in May 2016. He made a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September 2017, slamming Trump and citing U.S. threats as grounds for North Korea maintaining its nuclear weapons program.

Ri spoke amid heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea’s first launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles in July 2017.

In a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the September 2017 gathering, Ri again lodged complaints about what North Korea viewed as U.S. hostility, according to Jeffrey Feltman, the then-U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs. Feltman, who attended the meeting, said Ri invited him to Pyongyang as the meeting ended.

When he was in Pyongyang three months later, Feltman said he privately delivered a message from Trump to Ri saying the U.S. president was willing to meet with Kim under the right conditions. According to Feltman, Ri expressed “bewilderment” and in an “unemotional tone of voice” said, “Why should I believe you that he, under the right circumstances, be willing to sit down with our leader?”

Feltman, who is now at Brookings, a Washington think tank, said Ri was disciplined in presenting regime policies. Among these was the argument that Pyongyang needed nuclear weapons for self-defense because the regime, including Kim, believed the U.S. would soon launch an attack.

Feltman said he got no hint that North Korea was willing to denuclearize when he met with North Korean officials.

Alastair Morgan, the U.K. ambassador to North Korea from December 2015 to December 2018, said Ri struck him as “composed, competent and courteous,” when he talked with him in Pyongyang at a Ministry of Foreign Affairs New Year’s reception in January 2018.

Other foreign diplomats and representatives of humanitarian aid organizations attending the event were allowed to “intermingle freely” and speak with North Korean officials, said Morgan. He said he has been told by his successor that the format for the event changed in 2019 to “a fixed seating dinner, reducing the opportunity for interchange.”