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In U.S., doubts about Seoul’s intervention

Special envoy visit might not do much, say former officials
Sept 05,2018
Former U.S. government officials are cautiously optimistic about South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s effort to put denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States back on track by sending a special envoy to Pyongyang today.

Chung Eui-yong, the Blue House’s national security adviser, will reprise his role as a special envoy to North Korea, returning to Pyongyang for a one-day trip accompanied by a South Korean delegation that includes Suh Hoon, director of the National Intelligence Service.

The group was the same one that went to Pyongyang in March and helped broker talks between the North Korean and U.S. governments that eventually led to the first summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in June.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a former acting deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation who spent 26 years in the U.S. State Department, told Voice of America on Monday that the purpose of the special envoy’s visit this time would be to “try to get the stalled U.S.-North Korean talks back on track.” He believes the South Korean envoy will encourage North Korea to work toward denuclearization but also said “it’s important that North Korea tones down the rhetoric.”

The two sides could also discuss a declaration to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, which concluded with an armistice agreement rather than a peace treaty. The North has been pushing for the declaration because it could offer security guarantees for the regime.

Gary Samore, the former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction under U.S. President Barack Obama, told Voice of America that while it was a good idea to propose a declaration in return for something from the North, it depends on what is exchanged. He warned that North Korea might incompletely declare its nuclear stockpile and facilities.

Other U.S. experts on North Korea were more cautious in terms of the outcome of the visit, despite Seoul’s expectation that Chung’s trip to Pyongyang might offer a breakthrough in the stalled denuclearization talks.

Robert Gallucci, a distinguished professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and the United States’ chief negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, told Voice of America that the visit “could lead directly to the deterioration of relations between Washington and Seoul.”

“The difficult part for the South right now is being caught in the middle,” between the North Koreans who want to “keep the pace of improving relations” and the United States, which wants to “continue the maximum pressure until there’s denuclearization,” he told Voice of America.

Gallucci also noted in a roundtable discussion on KBS World Radio on Tuesday that North Korea would “forever be a recessed nuclear weapons state” that could always replenish its nuclear weapons capability in the future.

Even if North Korea declares its stockpile and allows “intrusive inspections,” he said neither the South Korean government, U.S. government nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “could ever be sure that the North didn’t have somewhere tens of nuclear weapons stored.”

But, he continued, “I think the denuclearizing mission can succeed … in a way that will bring stability to Northeast Asia.” He cited Japan, with its expertise in separating plutonium, as an example of a country that could build a small nuclear weapons arsenal in less than a year but remains “a full member in good standing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.”

Amid continued mistrust between North Korea and the United States, Gallucci said the only way to make progress would be to simultaneously take steps toward both the North’s denuclearization and the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Leon Panetta, the defense secretary under Obama, panned Trump and Kim’s meeting in June as a “failed summit” and said it was “doomed” from the beginning because there was no preparation.

“This isn’t about the dominance of personalities,” he said. “This is about the hard work of negotiating the solution to the differences between North Korea and the United States and South Korea.” All three countries, along with Japan, have to put “everything on the table so that you can begin to make the trade-offs that are part of what ultimately would be a resolution to the situation,” he said.

South Korea has the burden of playing mediator between the United States and North Korea, even while it is planning a third summit between Moon and Kim.

Im Jong-seok, the presidential chief of staff widely seen as overseeing inter-Korean relations in Moon’s administration, said in a Facebook post on Monday that he looked forward to the special envoy playing a role in priming U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s return to Pyongyang so that talks between North Korea and the United States might advance.

But Im also acknowledged the grim reality of diplomacy, that “realizing a historic change without strategic patience and consent of the United States is realistically impossible.” He added that the Moon administration “has unprecedented close communication and cooperation with the United States.”

On the doubts floating in Washington about Chung’s visit to Pyongyang, a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul said on the condition of anonymity, “We hold the basic position that the denuclearization issue and inter-Korean relations are in a virtuous cycle. I believe there is no difference in position on this between South Korea and the United States.”

“The first time the special envoy visited the North, we explained to neighboring and key countries the outcome, so it is likely we will follow this process” again, the source said.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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