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Deputy PM from North to attend rail ceremony

Ri Ryong-nam, a top economic premier, is the likely candidate
Dec 21,2018
A North Korean deputy prime minister will likely attend an inter-Korean railway project’s groundbreaking ceremony in Kaesong scheduled for next Wednesday, a South Korean government source said on Thursday.

The two Koreas agreed last week that around 100 members on each side would attend the ceremony, to be held at Panmun Station in Kaesong, where the railways of the South and North meet. The project is aimed at modernizing the North’s railways and roads, and connecting them to the South’s.

Seoul’s delegation will likely be led by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and Transport Minister Kim Hyun-mee. The North’s delegation will be headed by their counterparts, Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, and Railway Minister Jang Hyok, according to South Korean government sources.

With less than a week left until the ceremony, the North reportedly contacted the South saying a deputy prime minister-level figure would likely lead the delegation on their side.

The most likely candidate holding such a rank that could attend the event is Ri Ryong-nam, North Korea’s vice prime minister in charge of economic affairs. He is believed to be a leading economic policymaker in the North in charge of its strategic investments.

Ri Ryong-nam gained media attention in the South during the third inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang last September when he met with such South Korean business leaders as Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, who accompanied President Moon Jae-in to the summit as part of an official entourage.

The government source in Seoul said that nothing was set in stone so far, but added that the two sides are negotiating to have “someone ranking higher than Ri Son-gwon” attend the ceremony.

Analysts say the North’s move to elevate the status of its representatives to the ceremony could be meant to goad the South into accelerating joint initiatives between the two countries, as North Korea’s negotiations with the United States remain at an impasse.

On Thursday, Uriminzokkiri, the North’s government-run propaganda website, published an editorial titled “Our nation should solve our issues without foreign powers.” In the article, it stressed the importance of self-determination by the Korean people in deciding the peninsula’s future.

It may also be no accident that the North’s decision to include a deputy prime minister on its roster was also timed to coincide with a visit by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, to Seoul this week. On Wednesday, Biegun delivered a series of optimistic messages to the North. He implied that the United States could relax its ban on visits by its nationals to the North for humanitarian purposes, and by visiting Panmunjom, the border village between the two Koreas where the first inter-Korean summit between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un occurred in April.

“A deputy prime minister’s presence at the groundbreaking ceremony could give the impression that progress is continuing even in this stalemate,” the South Korean government source said.

North Korea has reportedly not yet requested that the South send its own deputy prime minister-level figure to the ceremony.

BY BAEK MIN-JEONG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]