July 02, 2019 10:11
One prominent North Korean official who is increasingly being spotted on important occasions like Sunday's brief meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.
Choe (55) apparently took control of preparations for the meeting, and talked separately with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun while the two leaders were meeting.
Remarkably, Choe survived the purge that saw most other members of the North's negotiating team for the failed summit with the U.S. in Hanoi in February culled.
Instead she was appointed to the State Affairs Commission in a session of the Supreme People's Assembly in April, which made her the only one of its 14 members who holds the rank of a vice minister. She also sat beside Kim in his limousine on his way to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in late April.
Choe seems to be more prominent in negotiations with the U.S. than either of her predecessors, Kang Sok-ju and Kim Kye-gwan.
The adopted daughter of former Premier Choe Yong-rim, who had no daughter of his own, Choe Son-hui went to school with other scions of the elite and studied in China and Austria.
She began her career as an interpreter at the Foreign Ministry in the 1990s but was fast-tracked thanks to her father's backing. Fluent in both English and Chinese, she is believed to be better at "reading" her U.S. counterparts in negotiations than many other North Koreans.
She worked as an interpreter for the chief North Korean negotiator during six-party denuclearization talks in the 2000s, but was apparently an important member of the team in her own right, according to a diplomat. "She has staying power in negotiations and is also very meticulous in detail," the diplomat added.
Her status wobbled briefly as denuclearization talks reached a stalemate after the first U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore in June last year and officials from the United Front Department grew more influential in negotiations. In January, she was replaced by Kim Hyok-chol as chief negotiator ahead of the Hanoi summit.
But when the Hanoi summit failed her star rose again. Alongside Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho, she gave a press conference in Hanoi late on the night the summit collapsed, telling reporters what Kim Jong-un had said.
Kim fired United Front Department chief Kim Yong-chol, who had led Pyongyang's negotiations with Washington, and gave more power to Foreign Ministry officials. Kim Song-hye, the other senior female official, was dismissed in the process, leaving Choe in the limelight.
But she now holds a poisoned chalice as she is sure to share the fate of Kim Yong-chol if future negotiations with the U.S. also fail. "Choe will probably become North Korea's first female foreign minister," a former senior intelligence officer here said. "But her fate depends on the success or failure of the next rounds of negotiations with Washington."
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