On April 18, 2019, North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency ran a statement from Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Kwon Jong Gun calling for Mike Pompeo to be replaced on the US negotiating team working with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on denuclearization and an end to the Korean War. Kwon’s statement appears to be an intentional attempt by Western-connected factions within North Korea to undermine talks with the US and makes a very strong case for his total removal from the DPRK’s political affairs.
Kwon’s statement, which does not appear to have been explicitly endorsed by Chairman Kim Jong Un, is strange due to its total focus on Mike Pompeo instead of John Bolton, who has lead the way on calls for a hardline approach against the DPRK. In 2018, North Korea blasted John Bolton after he publicly discussed a “Libya model” as a “solution” amid efforts between President Donald Trump and Kim to discuss denuclearization. North Korea has continued their criticism of Bolton in 2019.
This is not the first time that Kwon has jeopardized the health of the peace process with hostile statements. In 2018, Kwon apparently tried to alter the DPRK’s public policy when he made a statement to North Korean media threatening a return to focus on the development of the North’s nuclear program along with economic development. Such a policy had not been espoused by the North Korean government prior to Kwon’s outburst. Kwon has also been present at meetings in previous years where DPRK officials took hostile stances towards US negotiators while discussing denuclearization.
So why would Kwon single out Pompeo, who has travelled on multiple occasions to North Korea and spoken out in favor of further talks even after the collapse of the Hanoi Summit? His previous work experience provides a possible explanation for the sudden belligerence.
Kwon, who was appointed to run the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affair’s North American department in February 2019, is the DPRK’s former ambassador to the United Nations. This raises serious questions about whether or not Kwon is intentionally sabotaging the likelihood that talks with the United States will be successful. The United Nations has played a prominent role in efforts to spread propaganda that would justify sanctions against North Korea and aggravate their relations with the outside world. Individuals supporting these efforts include former UN Ambassador and neoconservative Nikki Haley, who stressed the importance of sanctions with the ostensible goal of cutting off revenue to the DPRK.
Kwon’s previous involvement with the UN reasonably leads to the conclusion that he is covering for other parties who use the international organization as a front for sabotage of a Korean peace deal. John Bolton also has also previously served as the US ambassador to the UN and leads the charge on the American side for increased sanctions in clear opposition to President Trump’s clearly stated desire for further dialogue. By choosing to target a US official on the negotiation team who has made actual efforts to reach out to the DPRK and meet with North Korean officials, Kwon exposes his true intentions – erosion of rapport to the point that both sides are dragged into a situation where hostile confrontation becomes more likely.
While the United States has their own housecleaning to attend to, North Korea must also remain vigilant to ensure that subterfuge does not erode a process that has shocked the international community with the strides it has made. Keeping both sides of the street clean means removing troublemakers like Kwon from power.