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North Korea sanctions

He talks of war with US, but North Korea’s top diplomat Ri Yong-ho has a ‘great sense of humour’

Beneath the bluster, he has a reputation as a soft-spoken, self-deprecating diplomat whom US officials deem one of the most accessible representatives of his government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 9:29pm

During the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting, he emerged as the fire-breathing mouthpiece of North Korea’s inflammatory government.

Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho mocked Donald Trump as “President Evil” and offered up sound bites about detonating nuclear bombs over the Pacific and shooting down US planes.

But here’s a little secret about Ri: beneath the bluster, he has a reputation as a soft-spoken, self-deprecating diplomat whom US officials have for years deemed one of the most accessible representatives of his government.

Ri was promoted to foreign minister in May 2016 for his adeptness at negotiating with Americans, not for hurling invective.

Watch: North Korean diplomat unloads on the United States

“He was put in that job for the purpose of being the negotiator. His speciality is negotiating with Americans,” said Gary Samore, a former US diplomat and non-proliferation specialist now at Harvard’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, who has known Ri for two decades.

“He is not one of these guys who acts like a caricature of a communist apparatchik. He has a great sense of humour. He is very creative in coming up with wording acceptable to both sides,” said Samore.

Samore first met Ri in 1994 when they were hammering out the details of the Clinton administration’s nuclear freeze deal known as the Agreed Framework. A decade later, Ri was a key negotiator in six-nation talks hosted by China. Since then, he has been a frequent attendee at back-channel talks hosted by influential Americans looking for another approach to North Korea.

Appearing in public before scrums of television reporters, Ri delivered screeds against the US government in pompous, formal Korean, but Samore described Ri’s English as “excellent, superb, idiomatic”

In his custom-made suits and silk ties, Ri could probably pass as a senior South Korean executive if not for the obligatory red badge pinned to his lapel, depicting the late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

Ri was born into an elite family, making him a “princeling” in the parlance of communist politics. His father, Ri Jong-je, was an aide to Kim Jong-il, managing his personal residences and property, and also an editor at the Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, the state propaganda machine, which perhaps accounts for the younger Ri’s aptitude for hurling insults at the United States.

Ri studied English at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. He served in North Korean embassies in Zimbabwe and Sweden and later as ambassador to Britain.

American diplomats who dealt with Ri said that he was exceptionally persuasive in articulating the North Korean point of view.

Joel S. Wit, a former diplomat and a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies went so far to suggest that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sit down and talk directly with Ri.

“At the moment, Ri may offer the best chance for finding a way forward because of his close ties to the ruling Kim family,” Wit wrote in an opinion piece for the Atlantic.

Wit has known Ri since the 1990s.

Up until early last week, last-minute efforts were underway to set up meetings between Ri and non-governmental American interlocutors. Samore said that somebody he would not identify had tried to arrange for him to see Ri in New York to talk about a way out of the impasse. The meeting never took place, and Ri left New York.