Efforts to Denuclearize North Korea Will Continue Despite Hard-Line Minister, U.S. Says

WASHINGTON — Efforts to denuclearize North Korea will continue despite a new foreign minister in Pyongyang who is seen as a hard-liner and could take a tougher stance in stalled negotiations, a senior State Department official said Wednesday.

The official would not forecast how the new foreign minister, Ri Son-gwon, who succeeds Ri Yong-ho, might approach negotiations with the United States over removing nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.

The official, citing diplomatic protocol to speak on the condition of anonymity, predicted the talks would restart, given what he said was a shared desire for progress on the part of President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

Despite frequent setbacks in the past year, Trump administration officials have publicly said they intend to continue with negotiations to settle on a denuclearization process, echoing Mr. Trump’s line.

Privately, though, some officials acknowledge that the administration has gotten nowhere, and that there is no sign the North will give up its nuclear weapons.

Ri Yong-ho’s removal was first reported on Saturday by NK News, based in Seoul.

The move was interpreted as a sign of further turmoil among the ranks of North Korean officials responsible for negotiating with the Trump administration and getting the Americans to lift sanctions.

Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump opened the talks in 2018 in Singapore. But those fell apart after the two leaders met again in February 2019, in Hanoi, Vietnam, prompting Mr. Kim to dismiss his negotiating team.

Among those sidelined was Kim Yong-chol, a former spy chief and top party official who was seen as the counterpart to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and oversaw the North’s negotiating team in Hanoi. Kim Yong-chol also had clashed with Mr. Pompeo in several meetings. In July 2018, North Korea said the United States had made a “gangsterlike demand” for denuclearization when the top American diplomat visited Pyongyang.

Last September, Ri Yong-ho did not attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, even though he had shown up in previous years and even rebuked Mr. Trump in his speeches there.

Ri Son-gwon, the incoming foreign minister who has served as an Army colonel, was an aide to Kim Yong-chol years ago.

In another shift of senior leadership, North Korea has replaced the defense minister, according to a report on Wednesday in Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The new official, Kim Jong-gwan, is an Army general.

“They come and go, so it’s pretty hard to put a lot of analytical freight on the new appointment,” said Robert Carlin, a former C.I.A. and State Department analyst on North Korea.

Mr. Carlin said the calculus of the United States in negotiations was still the same. And he noted that much depended on the next steps that the North’s leader takes, in particular whether he carries out another nuclear test or an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

The State Department official shrugged off suggestions that Russian and Chinese diplomats had dissuaded North Korea from carrying out a major weapons test that American officials had expected — and that Mr. Kim had described as a possible “Christmas gift” for Mr. Trump.

Mr. Kim had given the Americans until the end of last year to make what he would consider a genuine offer that would result in the lifting of sanctions. However, instead of a weapons test, he warned that North Korea was developing a new strategic weapon. Mr. Kim also ridiculed the impasse that he said would result in the United States becoming “more helpless” against the North.

In December, Stephen E. Biegun, the deputy secretary of state and main negotiator on North Korea, traveled across East Asia to discuss the North Korea sanctions with China and to indicate to North Korea that the Americans were willing to continue talks. Mr. Kim, at a communist party meeting on Dec. 28, called for “offensive measures” to strengthen security.

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