Why you should care
Because this veteran keeps a hand in North Korea’s foreign policy.
In the closed-off Communist dictatorship of North Korea, life revolves around one man: Kim Jong Un. But with a possible high-stakes summit looming between the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom and the United States, OZY is taking a look at the key figures around the Dear Leader. This is Life Beyond Kim.
To many outside observers, Kim Jong Un is not only the face of his country, but the portly 30-something dictator’s face is also likely the only North Korean leader one could easily pick out of a lineup. But no shadowy regime would be complete — or even function — without a cadre of trusted advisers operating behind the scenes, ensuring that the Dear Leader’s wishes are being translated into real-world actions and policies. And there is perhaps no set of hands that Kim Jong Un trusts more than those of Ri Su Yong.
Ri, 77, has long been a close family friend and confidant of North Korea’s ruling regime. Born in 1940, he was a school friend of Kim Jong Un’s father, the eventual dictator King Jong Il. After studying at the University of International Affairs, Ri became a career diplomat in North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, eventually landing at the North Korean embassy in Switzerland in the early 1980s. Using the name Ri Chol at the time (no one is quite sure why), he would become North Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. Mission Geneva and more or less Kim Jong Il’s primary representative in Europe — including the critical job of handling the dictator’s financial interests on the continent.
Ri helped plant a stake in Europe for North Korea, building relationships with Western bodies and nongovernmental organizations. Ri also arranged medical treatments, schooling and other services for wealthy North Koreans living overseas. It was in this pastoral capacity that he also became a mentor and surrogate father figure to Kim Jong Un and his two siblings during their years at a private Swiss boarding school in the 1990s. According to a memoir written by Song Hye Rang, an extended member of the Kim family, Ri took his supervisory duties — and the safety of the Kim children — seriously, sometimes watching the school’s main gate through binoculars from a rented apartment across the road.
The foreign ministry was in need of a makeover. So the younger Kim appointed a trusted set of hands to lead the reform and reset the nation’s foreign policy.
During his three decades in Switzerland, Ri, with his glasses and black hair combed back, became highly regarded as a diplomat and businessman in Western circles — someone who was approachable, sophisticated and did not just regurgitate the boilerplate, ideological sentiments coming out of Pyongyang. “Ri is a straight shooter, a very blunt guy,” says Michael Madden, an expert on the Pyongyang leadership who operates the website North Korea Leadership Watch, “and he earned an incredibly good reputation while in Switzerland.” The French-speaking Ri is even reported to have helped broker the deal with the Egyptian company Orascom to get North Korea cellphone service in 2008.
Ri was recalled to Pyongyang not long before Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011. Under Kim Jong Un, Ri took on an expanded portfolio, becoming an indispensable figure in his former ward’s regime. In some ways, Ri Su Yong is for the Kim family what Vernon Jordan or James Baker III was for the Clinton and Bush political dynasties in America — an all-purpose government consigliere, comfortable in the worlds of politics, business and diplomacy. “He is a fixer,” says Ken Gause, author of North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-un. “Someone who can facilitate information, money, goods into and out of the regime.”
It wasn’t long before North Korea’s young dictator appointed Ri to become foreign minister, the nation’s top diplomat, in 2014. After decades of neglect under Kim Jong Il, the foreign ministry was in need of a makeover. So the younger Kim appointed a trusted set of hands to lead the reform and reset the nation’s foreign policy. And in just over two years as foreign minister, says Madden, Ri revamped the position and the department, appointing new ambassadors and visiting countless countries to shore up North Korea’s connections across the world. He also became the public face of the nation on the world’s stage while his boss remained at home in Pyongyang.
But it was not always a pretty face that Ri showed the world. After U.N. investigators accused North Korea’s leadership of crimes against humanity, Ri lashed out in a 2016 speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council, informing it that his country would “never, ever” be bound by human rights resolutions and accusing the body of “politicization, selectivity and double standards,” given gun violence in the United States and Europe’s migrant crisis.
After his productive, if provocative, stint as foreign minister, Ri was elevated to the ruling Worker’s Party’s Central Committee. It is unlikely, says Madden, that Ri has been involved in recent negotiations between North Korea and its adversaries in South Korea and the U.S. But via his close relationship with Kim Jong Un, Ri remains a key player in the nation’s foreign policy — and in the nation’s leadership, if the Kim dynasty were to go down. Such a scenario remains highly unlikely, says Madden, but if it did, Ri would be near the top of the list of officials that outside powers would reach out to: “He is definitely someone I would want to talk to if there was no one named Kim around.”
For the moment, however, the trusted Ri will be keeping an eye out for Kim — just as he’s done for decades.