“If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that's really a dog dream,” Ri told reporters after arriving in New York on Wednesday. This was a reference to a North Korean saying that processions keep on moving even if dogs are barking. In Korean, a “dog dream” is one that is absurd and makes little sense, Yonhap reported.
When asked about the term “Rocket Man,” Trump’s new nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Ri said: “I feel sorry for his aides.”
This is the third year in a row that North Korea has sent its foreign minister to the U.N. General Assembly, but it is the first time that Ri, who was appointed to the post last year, has attended.
“My guess is that he will launch into a pretty intense assault on the United States and its 'hostile policies,' and that he will excoriate the allies of the United States and maybe even make oblique negative references to China and Russia,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official on the Koreas who has met Ri about three times in the past five years.
In person, Ri comes across as at ease with himself and self-confident, and sometimes even self-deprecating, Revere said. But in a forum like the U.N. General Assembly, Ri's job is to espouse the regime's most polemical lines in the most heartfelt way.
Although the Foreign Ministry has relatively little influence compared with security agencies in North Korea, Ri holds a special position in the regime. He is also one of the few North Korean apparatchiks well known to U.S. officials.
“He is a well-connected foreign minister,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has met Ri on several occasions. “The foreign ministry as a whole is an organization without a great deal of clout within the DPRK but he as a foreign minister is listened to, and he is one of the few people that we come into contact with who is also believed to talk to Kim Jong Un.”
Ri is the son of Ri Myong Je, who was editor of the Korean Central News Agency, a regime mouthpiece, and was a close aide to Kim Jong Il. That makes Ri “a bona fide princeling,” according to the North Korea Leadership Watch website.
Thanks to this blue blood, Ri, who is about 63, has enjoyed a number of high-level positions in the North Korean regime. (He is not to be confused with Ri Yong Ho, a former chief of North Korea's military general staff who was reportedly executed earlier this year.)
For nearly 20 years, Ri has been one of the central diplomatic managers of the country’s relations with the United States and has been a primary interlocutor with representatives of the United States during official and unofficial “Track 1.5” talks, North Korea Leadership Watch says.
In 2000, Ri accompanied Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, who was second-in-command of the North's powerful National Defense Commission behind Kim Jong Il, on a trip to the United States.
There, he met with President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, a visit that was hailed as a step toward better relations between the two countries. (That never happened because George W. Bush soon took office and pursued a very different approach toward North Korea.)
As a young diplomat, Ri was posted in Zimbabwe and Sweden, and was ambassador to Britain between 2003 and 2007. More recently, Ri served as chief negotiator in the six-party talks on North Korean denuclearization.
“One of Kim Jong Un’s best decisions was appointing Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister,” said Thae Yong Ho, a former deputy ambassador at the North Korean Embassy in London who served under Ri while he was ambassador there. Thae defected to South Korea last summer.
“He’s a role model to every North Korean diplomat — very knowledgeable in foreign languages and a spectacular writer,” Thae told South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo.
At the Workers' Party Congress in Pyongyang last year, the first in a generation, Ri was made an alternate member of the party's Political Bureau.
As foreign minister, Ri has continued to be amenable to at least meeting adversaries — although he of course hews to the regime line in every encounter.
He briefly met his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila last month but batted away her suggestion of military talks to lower tensions on the divided peninsula.
“Given the current situation in which the South collaborates with the U.S. to heap pressure on the North, such proposals lacked sincerity,” an unnamed South Korean official quoted Ri as saying, according to a report from the meeting by the South’s Yonhap News Agency.
Ri also met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who said he'd had an “in-depth exchange” with his North Korean counterpart — one that sounding like a scolding.
“China urged the North Korean side to calmly face the new U.N. Security Council resolution, and not to do anything to violate [it] amid the strong opposition of the international community to [North Korea] launching a missile or [staging a] nuclear test,” Wang was reported to have said.
Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, was at the forum in Manila but did not meet with Ri.