SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun, Pyongyang’s top diplomat for much of the past decade of confrontation over its nuclear ambitions, has died, the country’s official media reported on Wednesday.
As foreign minister of one of the world’s most reclusive states, he seldom engaged directly in diplomacy. “In recent years, Paek has mostly been a figurehead,” said one South Korean official familiar with North Korea policy.
His successor might also be a largely symbolic leader, analysts said, but they noted that Paek’s death could give paramount leader Kim Jong-il a chance to revamp his foreign policy.
Paek, 77, who took the post in September 1998, had been ailing for some time. His last major appearance on the public stage, at an Asian foreign ministers’ gathering in Kuala Lumpur in July 2006, saw him being wheeled around on a golf cart.
Paek rebuffed calls to hold a joint meeting there with other foreign ministers to discuss the North’s nuclear plans. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test three months later, on October 9.
“Leader Kim Jong-il Wednesday sent a wreath to the bier of the late Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun, deputy to the DPRK (North Korea) Supreme People’s Assembly, expressing deep condolences over his death,” the official KCNA news agency said. It gave no further details.
Analysts said at the time the choice of Paek to head Pyongyang’s foreign service was surprising because he was better known as a cadre familiar with South Korea than as a career diplomat.
Born on March 13, 1929, in the northern province of Ryanggang, Paek was involved for many years with the North Korean Red Cross, a main channel of communication with the South.
Paek led the North Korean Red Cross shipment of rice in 1984 after the South was hit by extensive flooding, and he visited the South as late as 1990 for initial talks during fledgling attempts at inter-Korean dialogue.
A heavy-set man with a history of illness, Paek often sought medical help during his few visits overseas, Seoul government sources familiar with the North said.
One of his last flourishes as foreign minister came at a meeting of Association of South East Asian Nations ministers in Vientiane in 2005 where he held talks with several foreign ministers, including the South’s Ban Ki-moon.
The meeting with Ban, who this week became U.N. secretary-general, was only the third meeting of foreign ministers from the divided Korean peninsula. A smiling Paek shook hands with Ban for the cameras and, in their talks, tried to calm fears about the North’s nuclear plans.
Ban, through a statement from U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas, offered condolences on Paek’s death.
“The Secretary-General hopes that the death of Foreign Minister Paek does not, in any case, hinder the ongoing six-party process or the way for North Korea’s foreign policy to open up to the international community,” Ban said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack offered condolences to Paek’s family. He said he did not know what impact Paek’s death might have on the nuclear talks because that question “gets to the internal workings of the North Korean regime.”
With additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz, Evelyn Leopold at the UNITED NATIONS and Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON