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Pyongyang’s New Voice

As the last North Korean official to communicate with US diplomats during the Kim-Trump summit meeting in Hanoi, Choe Son-hui is expected to play an increasingly important role in the country’s foreign policy

By NewsChina Updated Dec.1

Since the first Six-Party Talks in 2003, Choe Son-hui, the newly appointed vice minister of foreign affairs for North Korea, has participated in nearly all the negotiations related to nuclear 
issues on behalf of the North Korean administration. 

As a veteran diplomat who wears a gold necklace to offset her austere black suits, Choe’s extensive experience on nuclear issues has seen her play an increasingly important role in the efforts to denuclearize the North Korea. Since early 2019, Choe has obtained four new titles. In March, she was promoted to the Supreme People’s Assembly, the country’s legislature. On April 10, she became a member of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party. On April 11, she became the only female member of the State Affairs Commission, North Korea’s supreme policy-oriented leadership body of State power. On April 24, she accompanied North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on his visit to Russia as the country’s first vice foreign affairs minister. 

During this trip, Choe reportedly sat next to Kim in his limousine. Her superior, Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, sat in the front passenger seat. When Kim was talking with his entourage at his residence in Vladivostok, Choe was also sitting next to him, according to a documentary that aired on Korean Central Television. To date, Choe has frequently spoken at important diplomatic meetings on behalf of North Korea’s top leader, with media speculating that she has become the personal spokesperson for Kim Jong-un.  

Silk and Iron 
Choe Son-hui was born in 1964 and is the adopted daughter of former North Korean premier Choe Yong-rim. She was educated in North Korea and also studied in China, Austria and Malta. In the 1980s, she became an English interpreter at the North Korean foreign ministry. 

When the Six-Party Talks started in 2003, Choe was the interpreter for Kim Kye-gwan, former North Korean vice foreign minister and head of the North Korean delegation. She was an important aide to the vice minister and personally involved in the negotiations on the nuclear talks. Choe kept a low profile. Yeh Young-june, a reporter from the English language Korea JoongAng Daily, remembers his personal contacts with Choe in Tokyo in 2007. Choe, then a senior interpreter, distanced herself from media interviews given by the North Korean delegation at the airport and was silently “arranging the check-in for Kim Kye-gwan.” 

Choe’s diplomatic career started to take off in 2007. In June of that year, Kim Kye-gwan announced the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and the cessation of all testing and production of nuclear weapons. In November, the New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang at the invitation of Kim Kye-gwan, sending a positive signal of peace to the international community. In August 2008, former US President Bill Clinton visited North Korea, followed a year later by former US President Jimmy Carter. Kim Kye-gwan was in charge of the reception and Choe was the main interpreter. In 2010, Kim Kye-gwan was promoted to first vice minister of the foreign ministry and Choe was appointed deputy director of its North American Department. 

On September 20, 2011, Choe was deputy director of the North Korean delegation at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing. According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, Choe began to take major responsibilities in the working-level talks on nuclear issues. 

In June 2016, Choe led the North Korean delegation at the 26th Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue in Beijing. When asked by reporters whether North Korea was disappointed with China’s policy change on their bilateral relations, Choe smiled as she answered: “North Korea is not disappointed at all because China is doing its own job and North Korea is also doing its own job.”  

“We are accustomed to it,” she responded calmly to the UN Security Council’s unanimous adoption of Resolution 2270 to impose sanctions on North Korea for its fourth illegal nuclear test on January 6, 2016. 

In November 2016, she was promoted to head of the North American Department and held a semi-formal meeting with Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Geneva, Switzerland. Since then, Choe has frequently popped up at restaurants on the outskirts of Oslo, Norway and farms in Stockholm, Sweden. Scholars from US think tanks who held talks with Choe argued that the newly appointed North Korean senior diplomat had won the trust of the country’s leadership. Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii, argued in a report that Choe is smart and well-connected, and it was only a matter of time before she would be promoted. 

In March 2018, Choe was promoted to the position of vice foreign minister and became the person mainly responsible for North Korea-US dialogues. Three months later, she held direct talks with Sung Kim, US ambassador to the Philippines in Panmunjom, the peace village in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, to discuss the details of the upcoming leaders’ summit between North Korea and the US. 

According to Rachel Emond, a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, Choe has both technical knowledge of North American affairs and hands-on experience with US officials at the working level.  

“Not only have her diplomatic skills been noted by experts, she has also made specific statements regarding her expectations of what the US-North Korea relationship should look like, including scaling back the US military presence in Korea and Japan,” Emond wrote for website Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 

Forthright Spokesperson
On July 27, Choe changed her signature black suit into a gray evening dress when attending a performance of North Korea’s National Symphony Orchestra with Kim Jong-un. A photo of the scene released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency shows Choe and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un who is a vice department director in the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, sitting on both sides of Kim Jong-un. Yonhap analyzed that their seating placements indicated a higher importance than more higher-ranking officials such as Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, reflecting the eminent positions of the two female leaders. 

According to a BBC report, more women are ascending the political ladder in North Korea, which means that Kim Jong-un has become more relaxed and open. Yonhap reported that the important positions and roles of female politicians in North Korea aim to create an environment indicating that North Korea is a “normal country.” 

During the second Kim-Trump Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019, Kim Jong-un showed the level of trust he places in Choe. US government officials later disclosed to The New York Times that after the two leaders parted in discord, Choe was the last North Korean official to talk with US counterparts. Choe revealed that North Korea is willing to destroy all the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, the US has provided evidence of the existence of another nuclear facility and demanded that North Korea dismantle it. 

“To my mind, North Korea’s top leader has lost his patience to continue the talks and reach an agreement with the United States,” she told reporters in the evening with a stern look. Yonhap said Choe has actually become spokesperson for Kim Jong-un.  

Two months later, Choe’s role as the spokeswoman was further confirmed. On June 29, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he would go to Panmunjom and shake hands with Kim Jong-un. Several hours later, Choe replied on behalf of North Korea’s top leader that the proposal was very interesting. 

That night, Choe held an emergency consultation with Stephen Biegun, US special representative to North Korea. On the second day, Choe walked with Kim Jong-un to the military demarcation line.  

Serving as spokesperson and aide in foreign affairs for Kim Jong-un reflects Choe’s increasingly important role. According to The New York Times, Kim Jong-un is willing to employ younger and more aggressive officials to supersede the older generation. 

According to an editorial published in the Lianhe Zaobao in Singapore, Choe’s important position shows that she has won Kim Jong-un’s support, but what is more important is that it is unlikely that North Korea will soften its stance on nuclear issues and that Choe is willing to be the enforcer on behalf of Kim Jong-un. 

Robert L. Carlin, a former analyst at the US Central Intelligence Agency with a focus on North Korean issues, argued that Kim Jong-un and Choe have a fine division of labor: Kim is more active but Choe is more aggressive and hints at the possibility of military confrontation. 

The strategy is closely related to the foreign policy of North Korea. In a speech on April 12, Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea is not anxious to communicate with the US and is willing to stay positive to change the views of the US. 

On September 9, 2019, Choe voiced clearly Kim Jong-un’s stance. “We hope the US could provide a solution that conforms to the benefits of both sides and is satisfactory to North Korea,” she said in a public speech. “If the US continues to offer the old tricks as in the past rounds of consultations, there will be an end to the communication between the two countries.”