Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Ri Son Gwon, the North Korean official appointed to Pyongyang's top diplomatic post in January to showcase a tough foreign policy stance, no longer is an alternate member of the politburo of the Korean Workers' Party Central Committee, the Chosun Ilbo reported Friday, citing "key government officials" in Seoul.
The foreign minister may have been demoted while retaining his position, according to the South Korean press report.
Ri made headlines in the South when he made incendiary remarks to a visiting South Korean delegation in 2018. Ri asked the South's business executives, including Samsung Electronics chairman Lee Jae-yong, whether the food served at a restaurant in Pyongyang was "making it down" their throats, using disrespectful language to refer to their anatomy.
According to the Chosun, South Korean officials said they have determined Ri has been "eliminated" from the party committee, but the development still is being analyzed.
Ri was last seen attending a politburo meeting Aug. 19, the report said.
Other South Korean officials said they are "keeping a close eye on the related situation," Yonhap reported Friday.
"Ri Son Gwon, however, is maintaining his position as the foreign minister and is continuing with his activities," Yonhap's sources said.
Ri was absent when Kim Jong Un made a rare public appearance, reported by state media Thursday. Kim was observing the death anniversary of father Kim Jong Il at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun with top politicians.
Analysts in the South said the North Korean leader soon could swap out Ri with a more "orthodox" diplomat, who could be better prepared to negotiate with the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Joe Biden, according to the Chosun.
Kim Hyung-seok, a former deputy minister of unification in the South, told the newspaper that the North needs a diplomat who can "talk to the United States."
Ri had little diplomatic experience when he was appointed earlier this year, and previously worked on inter-Korean issues as chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.