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North Korea confirms former commander is new foreign minister

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea on Friday confirmed that Ri Son Gwon, a former defence commander with limited diplomatic experience, has been appointed the country’s new foreign affairs minister, while the United States repeated calls for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

FILE PHOTO: Head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon talks with his South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon (not pictured) during their meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Korea Pool

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported that Ri, the latest military official to be promoted under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, gave a speech as minister at a New Year dinner reception hosted by the ministry on Thursday for embassies and international organisations.

North Korea informed countries with embassies in Pyongyang last week that Ri, a former military officer and now a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, had replaced Ri Yong Ho as Pyongyang’s top diplomat.

The appointment came as a surprise to North Korea watchers amid stalled denuclearisation talks with Washington, as Ri does not have any experience in dealing with nuclear issues or U.S. officials. His predecessor was a career diplomat and seasoned nuclear negotiator, though he often took a backseat to military officer-turned-party envoys during the last two years of diplomacy.

The new foreign minister did, however, lead high-level inter-Korean talks in 2018 as chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which handles South Korea affairs.

His predecessor did not attend the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in September and Seoul-based NK News said his absence from a group photo of top ruling party officials at a meeting in January raised speculation that he may have been replaced amid a broader political reshuffle.

In Washington, the senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell - himself a former military officer - told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank he had “no idea” as to the background and stance of the new minister, but added:

“There was a change; I think that itself indicates something. I hope it’s positive to say, ‘maybe we should change our tack and come to the table and have the discussions we committed to.’”

Stilwell said the best approach for Washington and its allies was to “maintain a solid position” and wait until Pyongyang returned to talks based on a commitment Washington says Kim made in a 2018 summit with President Donald Trump to abandon his country’s nuclear arms.

“I like that fact that we aren’t in a rush,” Stilwell said. “We’ve stated our position, we made our agreements and we are going to insist that the other side follows through with those.”

North Korea reiterated on Tuesday it was no longer bound by commitments to halt nuclear and missile testing, blaming the United States’ failure to meet a year-end deadline to show more flexibility in talks and “brutal and inhumane” sanctions.

Separately on Friday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Washington was “disappointed” by Russia’s failure to repatriate North Korean workers by a December deadline as required under U.N. sanctions.

Russia said on Thursday it had missed the deadline due to what it called objective difficulties, and that around 1,000 North Korean workers were still in Russia.

A senior U.S. official said on Wednesday China had also failed to send home North Korean workers by the deadline, leading Washington to blacklist two entities involved in Pyongyang’s labour export.

Last month, China and Russia proposed the lifting of some U.N. sanctions on North Korea, including the labour export ban, to encourage talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

“We expect all U.N. member states to fulfil their obligations under the U.N. Security Council Resolutions that were unanimously adopted,” the State Department spokeswoman said.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Alistair Bell