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Biegun’s new counterpart is veteran diplomat

July 06,2019
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Kim Myong-gil
North Korea appointed a veteran diplomat with experience from the six-party talks to lead its working-level denuclearization negotiations with Washington, according to a diplomatic source.

Kim Myong-gil, the North’s former ambassador to Vietnam and one of its envoys to the six-party talks of the 2000s, is likely to be U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun’s counterpart in upcoming talks, a South Korean diplomatic source told Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday. Ken Gause, an analyst of North Korean affairs at CNA, also said Kim was the likely candidate for the job in an interview with Radio Free Asia on Wednesday. Another South Korean senior diplomatic official on Thursday said the North’s selection of its new negotiator in the discussions was brought up during the brief meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday, but that he couldn’t disclose who it was.

At the time of the talks on Sunday, U.S. officials were unfamiliar with Kim Myong-gil’s name, but later conducted an inquiry to look over his background, various sources familiar with the meeting said.

Gause, a leading North Korea analyst at the Virginia-based non-profit think tank, backed the idea that the North’s Foreign Ministry leapfrogged over the United Front Department (UFD) to take charge of the country’s engagements with the United States following the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February.

Kim Yong-chol, who headed the UFD, was sacked as the director of the agency in charge of diplomacy and espionage toward South Korea and replaced with an unknown, Jang Kum-chol. With the UFD’s role apparently reeled back, the Foreign Ministry, under Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, appeared to take a leading role in standing by Kim Jong-un during Sunday’s abrupt summit. Yet neither Ri nor Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui are likely to head the working-level negotiations, Gause said, given that they formally outrank Biegun.

The role of working-level negotiator will likely go to Kim Myong-gil, Gause added, though the envoy’s capacity to determine the scope of the talks and make decisions would likely be limited. In this regard, he would be taking over the position held by former negotiator Kim Hyok-chol ahead of the Hanoi summit.

The South Korean conservative daily Chosun Ilbo alleged in late May that Kim Hyok-chol had been executed for the failure of the Hanoi summit, but later reports, like those from CNN last month, said he was still alive but in state custody.

It remains to be seen whether Kim Myong-gil can get better results from Washington, but his experience in dealing with the United States makes him a likely candidate. Kim Myong-gil served as a consular official at Pyongyang’s mission to the United Nations and as U.S. policy director in the Foreign Ministry. He visited the United States in October 2000 as part of the entourage led by Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok that met then-U.S. President Bill Clinton as one of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s special envoys.

From 2006 to 2009, he was part of the North’s delegation for the six-party talks, a series of multilateral negotiations held between North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States in Beijing. While the talks, which began in 2003, reached several agreements related to the dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program, Pyongyang eventually walked out after disagreements over implementation and verification of the agreed-upon denuclearization process.

Since then, Kim Myong-gil served as ambassador to Vietnam from August 2015 and played a key role the North’s activities in Hanoi during the second summit with the United States, though he was recalled back to Pyongyang in April after the talks fell apart.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]