Why N Korea replaced its ambassador to China after 11 years

25-Feb-2021 Intellasia | Koreaherald | 7:03 AM Print This Post

North Korea recently appointed a former trade minister as its new ambassador to China, entrusting him with the crucial mission of reviving trade with the country’s closest ally amid deepening COVID-19 woes.

Ri Ryong-nam, 61, succeeds Ji Jae-ryong, 79, who has served as the North’s top envoy to Beijing since 2010.

Ri’s appointment follows a recent Cabinet reshuffle aimed at rehabilitating the troubled North Korean economy under a new five-year economic development plan announced last month. It is highly unusual for an economic official to become an ambassador in the North.

Ri served as trade minister from 2008 to 2016, during which time the North’s trade ministry was renamed the External Economic Affairs Ministry. Until recently, he had served as the North’s deputy premier handling foreign trade. He is also a nephew of Ri Myong-su, a former army chief and a close aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The new ambassador is a familiar face to many in South Korea. During the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2018, he was seen meeting with 17 chaebol leaders, including Samsung Electronics vice Chair Lee Jae-yong, to discuss business cooperation projects.

“Ri may have little experience in foreign affairs but is highly credited with developing trade with China. His appointment as a top envoy reflects how much emphasis the North is putting on resuming trade with China,” said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

Hong added that Ri boasts extensive connections with economic officials in China.

“He can communicate with the Chinese authorities more directly, more quickly,” Hong said.

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a heavy toll on the North Korean economy, which was already hobbled by international sanctions and mismanagement. With the border sealed to ward off the virus, trade with Chinawhich accounted for 95 percent of the nation’s total trade volumeshrank further.

Over the past year, the North’s trade with China plummeted 80.7 percent to $540 million, according to the Seoul-based Korea International Trade Association. It was a sharper fall than in 2017, when toughened international sanctions were imposed as punishment for its nuclear weapons tests. At that time, trade between the two countries experienced a 51.6 percent plunge.

With no immediate signs of recovery in trade with China, KITA predicted that trade between the two neighbours could resume for essential items like food and medicines as part of a quarantine partnership, depending on the pandemic’s trajectory.

Hong also said the appointment of a new ambassador to China offers some clues to the North’s pending reopening of its border, though it will probably happen in phases.

“During the border shutdown, the North has secured vaccines, about 1.99 million doses, with more coming through China or Russia. While nations around the world are striving to achieve herd immunity by the first half of this year, the North is also likely to ease quarantine measures in the coming months, reopening the border with China,” he said.

In the meantime, Beijing recently announced the replacement of its Pyongyang ambassador after six years. Wang Yajun, 51, a senior official of the ruling Communist Party, who served as deputy head of the party’s International Liaison Department of the Central Committee, will take up the office. Considering diplomatic courtesy, the two neighbours most likely discussed the replacement of their ambassadors before the official announcements.



Category: Korea

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