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(LEAD) N. Korea confirms replacement of its top diplomat

All Headlines 23:41 January 23, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details throughout)

SEOUL, Jan. 23 (Yonhap) -- North Korea confirmed Thursday that it has appointed an official handling inter-Korean affairs as its new top diplomat.

The North's state media reported that the foreign ministry held a banquet for ambassadors based in Pyongyang ahead of the Lunar New Year and referred to Ri Son-gwon, who was among the senior officials on hand at the gathering, as the foreign minister.

It was the first time that the North Korean media has confirmed Ri's appointment.

Speculation had appeared recently that Ri, former chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, may have replaced Ri Yong-ho, who led the nuclear negotiations with the United States.

Pyongyang had reportedly notified foreign ambassadors of Ri's appointment but had yet to confirm it publicly.

The change in the top post has generated a lot of attention as it could signal a shift in the North's approach to the United States and South Korea amid stalled denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

Ri, a former army officer, is known to have little diplomatic experience.

During the banquet, the new foreign minister underscored his country's willingness to make "a frontal breakthrough" by beefing up "self-reliance" to tackle external challenges confronting the communist regime, in line with the decisions made at the key party meeting at the end of last year, the state media said.

North Korea's media outlets have emphasized the need for self-reliance almost daily since leader Kim Jong-un recently called for intensified preparations for a protracted struggle against pressure led by the U.S.

Ri's appointment also comes as Seoul has declared its intention to bolster cross-border exchanges with Pyongyang, notably individual tours, as a way to bring the North back to nuclear dialogue, in the hope that it would help win international support for partial relief of sanctions.

North Korea has criticized South Korea for dragging its feet in inter-Korean relations for fear of undermining the U.S.-led sanctions regime and has stayed unresponsive to Seoul's repeated offers for talks and cooperation.

Denuclearization talks have been deadlocked since the no-deal summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump last February as they failed to match Pyongyang's denuclearization steps and Washington's concessions, such as sanctions relief.

In his New Year's Day message, Kim said that he does not feel bound to maintain a self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range and nuclear weapons, saying that the North will show off a new strategic weapon in the near future.

(LEAD) N. Korea confirms replacement of its top diplomat - 1

elly@yna.co.kr
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