The political wild card at the UN General Assembly isn’t Trump—it’s North Korea’s top diplomat

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Image: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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Much has been made of US president Donald Trump’s first speech yesterday (Sept. 19) to the United Nations General Assembly. Being rather dark and blunt, it was indeed notable. But the gathering’s most consequential presence could prove to be that of a diplomat from North Korea: the foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho.

The US has no diplomatic relations with North Korea (communications sometimes take place via “the New York channel,” North Korea’s office at the UN). It’s difficult enough for the two sides to meet in any way, but now, the US and North Korea have inexperienced, headstrong leaders who seem more fond of hurling fiery threats at one another than diplomacy. Kim Jong-un has never met another head of state, according to the New Yorker magazine (paywall), and the 30-something is likely to be surrounded by yes-men, given his willingness to kill senior officials he dislikes.

Ri is slated to address the UN general assembly on Friday, and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, for one, expects to meet him. So the presence of Ri presents an opportunity—the smallest of exchanges could lead to more important ones down the line.

Ri might be another one of Kim’s yes-men, but some yes-men count more than others. Joel S. Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, notes in the Atlantic that Ri is a well-connected individual in North Korea. His father served as the deputy chief of Kim’s father, and in Pyongyang he’s considered a go-to expert on the US and disarmament issues.

That means he’d be a particularly good person for US secretary of state Rex Tillerson to talk to, even on the sidelines of the big event. Tillerson “could show that he is serious when he talks about a diplomatic solution to the current crisis,” notes Wit, adding:

“A Tillerson-Ri meeting may not in the end prove an important milestone in U.S.-North Korean relations. However, one meeting could make all the difference, particularly in view of the current drift towards tension and confrontation. And we will never know if it never happens.”

Ri is not an inaccessible figure. In Manila last month he spoke with (paywall) his counterparts from China, Russia, and even sworn enemy South Korea, which North Korea has no diplomatic relations with.

Talk with Ri, no matter how small, probably couldn’t hurt at this moment in history.