SEOUL (Reuters) – The man who called Donald Trump “President Evil” last week at the U.N. General Assembly is actually a genteel intellectual who studies the memoirs of former U.S. presidents and has taste for fine whisky, according to ten people who know him.
North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho made headlines in the Sept. 23 speech to the 193-member General Assembly, and also two days earlier when he revealed to reporters outside his hotel that North Korea’s next move might be to detonate a hydrogen bomb above the Pacific Ocean, in response to U.S. President Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” his country of 26 million people.
While bellicose rhetoric often spouts from militaristic North Korea, it did seem out of character coming from what friends and colleagues described as a polite and softly-spoken career diplomat with a self-deprecating sense of humor and sharp debating skills.
“As a negotiation partner, Ri was a good one, whose status seemed quite secure and who had relatively greater leeway to exercise during the talks,” said Wi Sung-lac, South Korea’s former envoy at the now suspended six-party talks aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
“He was flexible and fundamentally rational,” said Wi, who met with Ri twice in 2011 in an effort to re-start the talks hosted by China, after they collapsed in 2008.
Ri has a reputation for translating North Korean propaganda into measured diplomatic language when interacting with Western diplomats, and has studied the works of former U.S. presidents in his spare time.
“He’s not just (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un’s mouthpiece,” said one source who knows Ri personally.
“He likes to read the memoirs of former U.S. presidents like Nixon and Bush. He also reads Kissinger. He tries to understand American thinking,” the source, who requested anonymity, told Reuters.
“If there are any debates about U.S. policy in North Korea, he’s usually the one who puts…