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Biegun going to Europe to discuss nuke talks

July 08,2019
America’s top negotiator with Pyongyang, Special Representative Stephen Biegun, will be traveling to Europe from Monday to Thursday to discuss North Korea’s “final, fully verified denuclearization,” according to the State Department on Saturday.

South Korea’s leading nuclear envoy, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon, and European officials are set to hold meetings with Beigun in Brussels from Monday to Tuesday and Berlin from Wednesday to Thursday, a State Department press release said.

No further details were given on the planned discussions. But the timing of the trip, coming right before a two or three week window in which working-level talks with the North are slated to begin, suggests it may involve arrangements for venues for the upcoming negotiations.

Shortly after the abrupt reunion of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the truce village of Panmunjom on the inter-Korean border on June 30, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said talks with the North would happen “sometime in July, probably in the next two or three weeks.”

Given its role in hosting earlier U.S.-North Korea working level talks between Biegun and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui in January, Sweden could be one possible venue for future meetings. Swedish diplomatic envoys also paid a visit to Pyongyang last week to discuss the release of an Australian graduate student held by the North, and they may have also discussed the idea of hosting nuclear talks in Sweden.

Among the items on Biegun and Lee’s agenda could be possible concessions the United States could offer North Korea as the denuclearization process unfolds, as reportedly mentioned by Biegun in an off the record conference with reporters on June 30.

According to the news outlet Axios, Biegun said Washington wasn’t ready to lift economic sanctions on the North for merely a freeze of its nuclear weapons program, but it could offer other concessions, like humanitarian relief and improved diplomatic ties. The latter element, according to Biegun, could involve establishing a “presence in each other’s capitals” through liaison offices, an idea that diplomatic sources say was floated by Trump to Kim during their Panmunjom meeting.

The possibility of the United States granting sanctions exemptions to inter-Korean economic ventures - including South Korea’s proposed resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours - may also be discussed, although the conservative Japanese Yomiuri Shimbun on Sunday alleged that Trump had rejected such suggestions raised by South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their bilateral summit on June 30.

According to analysts, Biegun could also come into contact with North Korean officials while in Europe, in addition to possible ongoing exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang through the latter’s mission to the United Nations in New York.

For its part, Pyongyang is believed to have appointed a veteran diplomat - its former ambassador to Vietnam, Kim Myong-gil - to be Biegun’s new counterpart in the negotiations. With his experience as one of the North’s leading envoys to the six-party talks in the late 2000s and his role guiding Kim Jong-un to Hanoi, Vietnam last February for the second summit with Trump, Kim Myong-gil has been cited as a likely candidate to take charge of dialogue with Washington.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]