Before New York: Assessing the North Korean Foreign Minister

North Korea does diplomacy like few other states in the world. The state’s well-known reclusiveness means that any foray outward is worth noticing; when combined with flamboyant attacks on adversaries (such as the insistence that the world bow before the blinding genius of their thirty-year old head of state, or risk being bombed), North Korean appearances have a way of attracting attention. The challenge is to understand if anything is actually changing in the fundamentals of how North Korea engages diplomatically, and to decipher the overall strategy.

Since taking post earlier this year, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong has made big swings through northern Africa and southeast Asia, raising eyebrows and expectations that some change might be afoot. Was Kim Jong-un preparing to bury the hatchet with Japan, moving towards a summit with Japan’s Prime Minister? Was North Korea reaching out to Southeast Asian countries as a means of counterbalancing dependence on China? Would the North Korean Foreign Minister attempt to rub elbows with US Secretary of State John Kerry when they both attended the ASEAN Forum?

As it turns out, the North Koreans and Americans managed to avoid one another completely, and John Kerry quickly found himself as the target of insults by a spokesperson for North Korea’s top political and military organ. (Kerry’s jaw, which objectively pales in size to that of Japanese wrestler and friend of North Korea Antonio Inoki, was one of the stranger elements of that attack).

Speaking at ASEAN, Ri Su-yong did not appear to need to insult the United States so directly; for his slow-tongued brethren in New York had already managed to do so, saying the Americans were demonstrating ‘last symptom of mentally retarded patient [sic].’  Ri’s public remarks were more substantive but equally unsurprising: He gave a speech calling on the US and South Korea to stop their annual military drills, and accused the US of preparing of a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea. Rather than trying to actually change public perceptions of the DPRK, North Korean diplomats have been making this point over and over.

In other words, the identical messages are being given; the only difference is that North Koreans are showing up to say them in person, hoping to have it depicted as some fundamental shift.  I think one thing that folks are missing in the analysis of the ‘diplomatic froth’ DPRK is creating recently is that it isn’t just that they are keeping the same hard policy line, it’s that the diplomacy is being done in order to reinforce the hard policy line, not in anticipation of its imminent relaxation.

The ultimate riposte finally came down in definitive form in early September, that North Korea would be doing “annual and routine” rocket launches of their own, but of course “at a higher and less predictable level,” making one wonder if the word “routine” has much meaning at all to the Kim family. In the aftermath of ASEAN, North Korea also published an article indicating their willingness to share nuclear technology with smaller countries around the region. Singapore surely needn’t be worried about in this regard, but Myanmar is perhaps a different story. And none of this is good news from Beijing’s perspective.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Ri’s tour was his meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Ishida. North Korean-Japanese relations have been warming up significantly this year. Japan removed some additional sanctions in return for promises to do a full-scale investigation of abductees from Japan as well as Japanese nationals killed or missing during the Soviet occupation of the North. There is a big pot of gold for North Korea at the end of the normalization process, talking to Japan annoys and worries China (from a certain North Korean viewpoint, is the best of all possible worlds).

Kim Jong-un may have two new airplanes, but he has yet to set foot as a head of state outside of North Korea’s borders, and does not seem likely to uproot himself anytime soon, much less be seen in public. It remains to be seen if his diplomatic offensive over the summer will bear much fruit at all, or if ad hominem attacks, rocket launches, and dialing up the volume on his personality cult are the only solutions forthcoming.

Adam Cathcart is lecturer in Chinese history at Leeds University and Editor of SinoNK.com.

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