(LEAD) N. Korea could task 1st vice FM with handling affairs with S. Korea: Seoul official

North Korea may let the first vice foreign minister handle inter-Korean affairs as the country has been pushing to abolish agencies in charge of ties between the two Koreas in a show of animosity toward the South, a Seoul official said Friday. Ko Young-hwan, a former North Korean diplomat who has become special adviser to South Korea's unification minister, said at a forum that North Korea could fill the post with Ri Son-gwon, head of the United Front Department (UFD) tasked with handling inter-Korean relations at the ruling party. At a year-end party meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un defined inter-Korean ties as relations "between two states hostile to each other" and ordered officials to disband agencies dealing with relations between the two Koreas. Last month, Kim dubbed South Korea as North Korea's "primary foe." North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui had served as the first vice foreign minister, the No. 2 post at the ministry, before she was promoted to the top diplomat in 2022. But sinc e then, the post appears to be vacant or removed, as state media have not reported who succeeded Choe. "As Choe is not well aware of the UFD work, North Korea could let the first vice foreign minister deal with affairs with South Korea and appoint Ri to the post to support her," Ko said. In January, Choe and Ri attended a meeting to discuss ways to dismantle agencies handling inter-Korean affairs. Without mentioning his title, state media called Ri an official in charge of affairs with South Korea, fueling speculation that the UFD might have been abolished. "Veteran officials at the UFD could be transferred to the foreign ministry's units similar to the national unification department," Ko said. The UFD has dealt with inter-Korean talks and North Korea's policy with South Korea, serving as a counterpart to Seoul's unification ministry. The national unification department at the foreign ministry is believed to have handled North Korea's inter-Korean policy until the mid-1990s. Citing an unidentified North Korean diplomat who has defected to South Korea, Ko said North Korea is moving to shut down 15 of its diplomatic missions, including nine that either have been closed or are under way for shutdown. Amid economic difficulties, North Korea has pulled out of Hong Kong and Libya in recent months in the latest of a series of shutdowns of its diplomatic missions, including Angola, Nepal, Bangladesh, Spain and Uganda. The total number of North Korean diplomatic missions had stood at 44 as of Jan. 30, according to Seoul's foreign ministry.