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North Korea's New Foreign Minister: A 'Very Familiar' Face in DC


FILE - North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, center, arrives for a meeting with US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Hotel in Singapore, June 11, 2018, ahead of the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump an

North Korea's new foreign minister is a tough-talking veteran female diplomat who speaks fluent English and has decades of experience negotiating with the United States and other major powers.

State media on Saturday announced the promotion of Choe Son Hui, who becomes North Korea's first female foreign minister and one of the highest-ranking women officials in its history.

It's not clear whether Choe's promotion – which came during a major, multiday political meeting in Pyongyang – indicates a wider shift in North Korea's approach toward the United States.

North Korea walked away from nuclear talks in 2019. It has ignored repeated invitations to dialogue by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

Instead, North Korea has launched 31 ballistic missiles this year, smashing a previous record of 25 set in 2019. There are also signs North Korea is preparing to conduct another nuclear test, the International Atomic Energy Agency said this week.

During past periods of U.S.-North Korea tension, Choe has taken a softer approach. At various points in her career, analysts have said her elevation represents North Korea's willingness to talk with Washington.

But Choe, the daughter of former North Korean premier Choe Yong Rim, also has a reputation for speaking bluntly.

FILE - People watch a TV screen showing file footage of North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 15, 2019.
FILE - People watch a TV screen showing file footage of North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 15, 2019.

She once called former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence a "political dummy." Those comments were reportedly a major factor in former U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to temporarily cancel his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump and Kim eventually met in June 2018 in Singapore, where they agreed to "work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." They held two more meetings in 2019 – first in Hanoi, Vietnam, and then on the inter-Korean border.

Choe played a major role in those negotiations, as well as in working-level talks between U.S. and North Korean officials. However, the diplomacy eventually broke down after North Korea grew frustrated at U.S. unwillingness to meet its demands.

Choe was a frequent participant in backchannel discussions, also known as "Track II" talks, with former diplomats and scholars. Those interactions make her very familiar to officials and others in Washington, according to Asia foreign affairs specialist Rorry Daniels, who has helped organize such informal discussions.

FILE - North Korea Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui talks during a press conference Feb. 28, 2019, at Melia Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam.
FILE - North Korea Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui talks during a press conference Feb. 28, 2019, at Melia Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam.

"I bet she has been at every major Track II in the last decade or more," Daniels said. "She is tough, but not a hardliner. As familiar with the U.S. and knowledgeable about its system as any of the major North Korean players."

Earlier in her career, Choe served as an interpreter at six-party talks between North Korea and five major world powers. Since then, she has steadily risen through the ranks of the country's foreign ministry. In 2019, she was appointed to first vice foreign minister.

Choe is a "colorful character," according to a Washington-based Korea specialist who has participated in backchannel talks with the North Korean diplomat, noting that she can be very contrarian and cheeky.

"She has a lot of experience with Americans, but that doesn't mean she'll make things easy on the U.S.," said the Asia expert, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity because of the private nature of Track II discussions.

Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center, agrees that Choe's appointment does not necessarily signal a greater North Korean willingness to engage with the United States.

"We need to be mindful of the fact that Choe Son Hui has also been quite active in North Korea's relations with China and Russia, particularly Russia," Madden said. "So her appointment is linked more closely with the post-Ukraine invasion geopolitical space rather than a potential thaw with the Americans."

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