North Korea named Choe Son Hui as the nation's first female foreign minister, state-run media reported Saturday, amid speculation the country may soon carry out its seventh nuclear test.
Choe, a senior diplomat and close aide to leader Kim Jong Un, has long handled nuclear weapons issues and North Korea's negotiations with the United States. Direct talks on denuclearization and sanctions relief between the two nations have been at a standstill for more than two years.
The appointment was made at an enlarged plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, chaired by Kim. The gathering was held for two days through Friday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
In 2020, Ri Son Gwon, a former military officer and head of the government's Committee for Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, became foreign minister, replacing Ri Yong Ho.
Ri Son Gwon, who had served as a representative to inter-Korean military talks since the mid-2000s, is known as a hard-liner on United States policy matters.
On Tuesday, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, said Pyongyang could conduct a nuclear test at "any time" and Washington's response to such a provocation would be made in "very close" coordination with its major regional allies Japan and South Korea.
But the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden will remain open to dialogue with North Korea toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula even if Pyongyang moves ahead with its first nuclear test since 2017, he said.
North Korea's appointment of Choe as foreign minister came days ahead of the fourth anniversary of the first-ever summit between Kim Jong Un and then U.S. President Donald Trump, Biden's predecessor, in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
In recent years, however, North Korea has expressed reluctance to hold bilateral negotiations unless Washington winds back what Pyongyang considers is its hostile policy position.
North Korea said in January it might resume all "activities" it had temporarily suspended when building trust with Trump, including nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. It has fired weapons several times this year.
On March 24, Pyongyang made the first launch of an ICBM since November 2017, marking an end to its self-imposed moratorium on such firings that dated back to April 2018.
Kim Jong Un was quoted by KCNA on Saturday as saying at the key party meeting that North Korea should achieve its defense goals earlier than scheduled, but the news agency did not report on any remarks he might have made about the country's nuclear arsenal.
The United States and North Korea remain technically in a state of war as the 1950-1953 Korean War, in which U.S.-led U.N. forces fought alongside the South against the North supported by China and the Soviet Union, ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
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