North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Jang's Men at United Front Department?

Ri Kwang-gun

Ri Kwang-gun, the DPRK’s former Minister of Foreign Trade, has become a deputy director in support of Kim Yang-gon at the KWP United Front Department which coordinates the country’s relations with the ROK.  Yonhap reports about Mr. Ri’s portfolio:

Ri, 57, works with several other officials of his rank to support Kim Yang-gon, director of the United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, which governs policies on South Korea, the sources said.

Ri is in charge of the department’s policies on inter-Korean economic cooperation, which has shrunk over the past two years since a conservative government took power in Seoul with a pledge to tie cooperation to North Korea’s efforts toward denuclearization, the sources said.

Ri Kwang-gun studied German in a 7-year program before entering the German Department at Kim Il-sung University in 1972.  In 1975-76, he studied abroad in the former East Germany.  He began his official career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1977.

From the late 1980s to the late 1990s he was a diplomatic secretary at the DPRK Embassy in Germany, seeing German unification first-hand.  His 2ooo appointment as Minister of Foreign Trade (when he replaced another NK German hand, Kang Jong-mo) occurred in the hey day of inter-Korean sunshine, but most especially for Mr. Ri’s experience, at a time when the DPRK was establishing diplomatic relations with individual EU countries.

Mr. Ri was dismissed in 2004 because he attended a lavish wedding ceremony, in open violation of Kim Jong-il’s written instructions against such events.  JoongAng reports that Ri Kwang-gun returned as a deputy director of Office #39, the Third Floor:

A former North Korean trade minister who had fallen out of favor has assumed a senior post in the ruling Workers’ Party to handle inter-Korean economic exchanges, sources said yesterday. An intelligence official in the South Korean government said Ri Kwang-gun, the former minister of foreign trade, is working as a deputy director of the United Front Department at the Workers’ Party. Ri had been fired as the minister in 2004 but returned early 2009 as deputy head of Office 39 and ended up in the current department late last year. Office 39 manages political funds and Kim Jong-il’s personal finances, and the United Front Department is charged with inter-Korean businesses.

Another source in China said Ri had previously run a trading company and served as an economic counselor at the North Korean mission in Germany. “Ri has long handled economic issues and he is now responsible for the National Economic Cooperation Federation’s dealings with inter-Korean cooperation,” the source said. “Kim Jong-il had placed Ri at the department because he felt the department lacked economic expertise.”

The wedding scandal of 2004 that swallowed Ri Kwang-gun, claimed other core North Korean elites with ties to the patronage network (s) of Jang Song-thaek and Kim Kyong-hui.  Some of these personalities, such as NDC Councilor Pak Myong-chol and Ri Kwang-gun, have re-emerged in significant leadership positions.  It remains unclear whether the wedding was an actual violation and enforcement of explicit Party rules, or whether Mr. Jang, Mr. Ri et al, were placed on sabbatical because their influence became untenable for KJI.

According to JoongAng one of the “other officials” with whom Ri Kwang-gun works at United Front is Won Tong-yon.  Mr. Won was reported by Yonhap in November 2009 to be promoted to United Front deputy director and a Vice Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee.  His cordial relations with Jang Song-thaek, forged on an overseas trip, were cited as the key reason for his promotion.

Ri Kwang-gun’ s relationship with Jang Song-thaek and Kim Kyong-hui (if not KJI himself) dates to his MOFA appointment in the 1970’s.  In the late 1970’s KKH and JST were supervising diplo and MOFA personnel appointments, particularly the job placement of the highly educated 2nd generation.  Another shadow floating over these reports of Ri Kwang-gun is Office #39 Deputy Director Jon Il-chun, who is involved in some of these businesses, and himself a former overseas foreign trade official.

Jang Song-thaek


This article was written on 16 Mar 2010, and is filled under Administration Department, International Department, Jang Song-thaek, Korean Workers' Party (KWP), Third Floor, United Front Department.

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