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Washington, Pyongyang speed up dialogue efforts

Sept 17,2019
Efforts to resume working-level denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington are speeding up with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suggesting a third summit and U.S. President Donald Trump responding that it should happen within the year.

The two sides are currently conducting behind-the-scenes discussions to decide on a location and the timing of the resumption of denuclearization talks, according to diplomatic sources.

Following the abrupt ousting last week of John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea noted for his more flexible approach, is seen to be gaining more leverage in the handling of Pyongyang policy.

It is still unclear if North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui will meet with Biegun, who has been floated by analysts as a possible pick for the post of deputy secretary of state, or if Pyongyang will go for veteran diplomat, Kim Myong-gil, a former ambassador to Vietnam who has experience in the now defunct six-party talks and most recently in the preparations for the second North-U.S. summit.

A foreign affairs source told the JoongAng Ilbo in Washington on Sunday that Biegun “conveyed multiple options for the date and location of working-level talks to Vice Minister Choe Son-hui and is awaiting a response.”

This source added, “We will know the date and location, as well as whether the [North Korean head of working-level talks] will be Vice Minister Choe or former Ambassador Kim Myong-gil when there is a response.”

This indicates that there have already been behind-the-scenes over the past week since Choe said on Sept. 9 that Pyongyang was willing to hold talks with Washington in late September, “at a time and place that the two sides can agree on.”

Trump in turn said days after firing Bolton that he is interested in holding another summit with Kim Jong-un within the year. Kim and Trump agreed to resume working-level talks during their impromptu meeting at the demilitarized zone on June 30, their first reunion since their second summit collapsed in late February in Hanoi.

Pyongyang had been unresponsive about resuming working-level talks until earlier this month.

A U.S. State Department official told the JoongAng Ilbo that it could not confirm the schedule of a North-U.S. meeting, but added that it “welcomed” the North’s promise to resume dialogue in late September.

The official said that the State Department is always “prepared” to discuss the location and timing of such talks with Pyongyang.

Some possible locations floated include the UN General Assembly session next week in New York. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump will also hold a bilateral summit on the sidelines of the assembly.

There is also a possibility the talks could take place in a third country.

The two sides maintain the location of the working-level talks should be somewhere that could provide real-time communication with Pyongyang and Washington.

Biegun is said to have conveyed to Pyongyang that he would want negotiations to take place where he can report to President Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in real-time on the status of working-level talks.

Therefore, Pyongyang, where talks took place in early February and where communication with Washington was severed, will likely be ruled out.

Similarly, the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom, which is one hour from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, has a steep time difference with Washington and will not be preferred.

Some analysts point out that the scheduling for the working-level talks may differ depending on North Korea’s strategy.

The talks could be shorter if the two sides were to just discuss scheduling a third summit or if Pyongyang simply wants to learn Washington’s position.

If that is the case, there is a chance that Choe could make a surprise stop by the UN General Assembly in New York.

Choe, in her statement earlier this month, called for a fresh approach from the United States and warned that if Washington does not come up with a “new way of calculation,” it could mean an “end” to the negotiations between the two sides.

Biegun in turn has favored a comprehensive approach toward denuclearization offering security guarantees to Pyongyang in return for some sort of nuclear freeze. Steps could include the dismantlement of the North’s Yongbyon nuclear complex in addition to other measures.

The two sides could also opt to take more time to flesh out their positions and hold so-called Track 1.5 talks in a third country, involving both government officials and civilians. Possible venues to host such talks could include European countries like Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, which have a compatible time difference for both sides. Biegun and Choe previously met from Jan. 19 to 22 in a resort in Stockholm for such Track 1.5 talks.

Pyongyang has long protested joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington.

Dan Smith, the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), said Monday in a press conference in Seoul that the think tank is always ready to “offer what is known as a safe space” for confidential dialogues between parties on “very difficult issues.”

He added, “At the end of January, together with the Swedish Foreign Ministry, we co-hosted a meeting of the special envoys of the U.S., [South] Korea and North Korea, which was I think the first time the American and North Korean envoys had been able to meet in a working environment.”

Smith noted that it is yet to be seen if the current denuclearization dialogue “is just one more effort in a long series of efforts,” but that it is also “possible that this period will be seen as a turning point, much for the better.”

He noted that Kim and Trump’s joint statement of June 12, 2018, on Sentosa Island in Singapore was a “vague and general roadmap” but “that vagueness was exactly right at that time.”

He added, “If you return to the text of the Sentosa agreement, you would see that it lays out very clearly the sense that there must be a quite long process of discussion, exchange and working out different ideas in order to achieve the final goals of [a peace] settlement and denuclearization.”

North Korea, said Smith, seems to be “truthful” about its intent for denuclearization, but this could depend on the definition.

Smith said what went wrong in the second North-U.S. summit in Hanoi was that the two sides forgot that “hard detailed preparatory work is needed in order to make real progress.”

He noted that Bolton’s departure could be considered as a “get ready to go light” for the negotiations to resume.

BY JUNG HYO-SIK, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]