To be or not to be the N.K. foreign minister

Korea Herald
Lee Joo-Hee
6/11/2007

Following the death of former foreign minister of North Korea Paek Nam-sun this January, eyes and ears are open to who would succeed him.

While in most countries, being named the next foreign minister would be a coveted honor, it was the opposite in North Korea.

Kang Sok-ju, the first vice foreign minister, indeed, has tried with all his means not to be named the new foreign minister, according to sources familiar with the North Korean system.

“North Korea designated Kang as the successor of late Paek, but he somehow dodged the actual appointment citing his illness, possibly arthritis,” a source was quoted as saying by Yonhap News.

Instead, former ambassador to Russia Pak Ui-chun was named to the seat on May 18 after it was vacant for four months.

Whether it was possible for Kang to “dodge” the appointment remains unconfirmed, the situation is quite understandable considering how North Korea bestows actual authority on the No. 2 man while the more public figure takes on the official top seat. Kang, seeking to remain in a position of real power, may have wanted to stay where he is.

The clearest example of this power ranking system is Kim Yong-nam, who, as head of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, is the formal president of North Korea. North Korea is, however, ruled by Kim Jong-il, whose official title is the chairman of the National Defense Commission.

“We deem that Kang believed becoming a foreign minister could mean going on all the official and open duties but being distanced from being one of the close confidantes of Kim Jong-il,” the source was quoted as saying.

Kim Jong-il, with intense interest in relations with the United States, reportedly has talked directly with Kang instead of the foreign minister to discuss pending issues since the 1990s.

A possible threat to Kang’s status could now be North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, according to sources quoted by Yonhap. Kim Kye-gwan was reportedly a candidate to succeed Kang if Kang was to be named the foreign minister.

Kim Kye-gwan earned the trust of the communist leader by successfully negotiating the lift of the freeze of North Korean funds at Banco Delta Asia in Macau, the sources said.

He was recently allowed to move into “the club,” a luxurious villa compound located in Pyongyang for some 30 households in which Kim Jong-il’s close confidantes reside.

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