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In this Jan. 9, 2018, file photo, Ri Son-gwon, head of the North Korean delegation, speaks during a meeting with South Korea, at the Panmunjom.

The Canadian Press

North Korea on Friday confirmed that Ri Son-gwon, a former defence commander with limited diplomatic experience, has been appointed the country’s new foreign affairs minister, while the United States repeated calls for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

The official KCNA news agency reported that Ri, the latest military official to be promoted under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, gave a speech as minister at a New Year dinner reception hosted by the ministry on Thursday for embassies and international organizations.

A diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters that North Korea informed countries with embassies in Pyongyang last week that Ri, a former military officer and now a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, had replaced Ri Yong-ho as Pyongyang’s top diplomat.

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The appointment came as a surprise to North Korea watchers amid stalled denuclearization talks with Washington, as Ri does not have any experience in dealing with nuclear issues or U.S. officials. His predecessor was a career diplomat and seasoned nuclear negotiator, though he often took a backseat to military officer-turned-party envoys during the last two years of diplomacy.

The new foreign minister did, however, lead high-level inter-Korean talks in 2018 as chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which handles South Korea affairs.

In Washington, the senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell – himself a former military officer – told an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank he had “no idea” as to the background and stance of the new minister, but added:

“There was a change; I think that itself indicates something. I hope it’s positive to say, ‘maybe we should change our tack and come to the table and have the discussions we committed to.’”

Stilwell said the best approach for Washington and its allies was to “maintain a solid position” and wait until Pyongyang returned to talks based on a commitment Washington says Kim made in a 2018 summit with President Donald Trump to abandon his country’s nuclear arms.

“I like that fact that we aren’t in a rush,” Stilwell said. “We’ve stated our position, we made our agreements and we are going to insist that the other side follows through with those.”

North Korea reiterated on Tuesday it was no longer bound by commitments to halt nuclear and missile testing, blaming the United States’ failure to meet a year-end deadline to show more flexibility in talks and “brutal and inhumane” U.S. sanctions.

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