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Christmas passes without a gift, will North send a letter?

Dec 28,2019
Despite North Korean threats of a “Christmas gift” to the United States and its self-imposed deadline of the end of the year fast approaching, the festive period passed without any provocations from Pyongyang.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Christmas Eve joked that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s gift might actually be a “beautiful vase,” an indication that Washington may have determined that the North would not cross a red line through acts of military provocation such as launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), keeping with a moratorium on such longer-range and nuclear tests agreed on in late 2017.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul in a press conference Friday urged the United States and North Korea to keep the situation from deteriorating “and revive the momentum for negotiations.”

He added there is a need for “an interim deal as a stepping stone” to a final agreement, calling this “the wisdom of modus vivendi,” or an arrangement that allows different people to live together in peace, often used in diplomacy to describe a temporary agreement ahead of a treaty.

As North-U.S. denuclearization negotiations face a roadblock, there has been speculation whether Trump’s and Kim’s letter diplomacy could bring about a turn in events.

In late December 2018, Kim sent a letter to Trump which led to working-level talks with the two Korea and the United States in Sweden in January. This in turn helped to set up the second North-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in late February, though the talks collapsed and resulted in no deal.

There has been speculation on whether Trump may reach out to Kim first with a letter to try to de-escalate tensions.

Trump made a phone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping on Dec. 21 and to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the following day, ahead of a trilateral summit between Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. President Moon Jae-in, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Abe held a trilateral summit in Chengdu, China, on Tuesday. Moon held separate talks Monday with Xi in Beijing, where the two leaders agreed to support maintaining the momentum of dialogue between North Korea and the United States.

U.S. top nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun, appointed as the deputy secretary of state last Saturday, visited Seoul from Dec. 15 to 18 in a weeklong trip to East Asia which also took him to Tokyo and Beijing. Though North Korea didn’t respond to his offers of talks, there had been interest to see if Biegun had brought a letter or message from Trump.

However, Seoul officials said that no letter exchange took place during Biegun’s visit.

Pyongyang has said it will take a new path if Washington doesn’t come up with a different approach to negotiations, but leader Kim’s move will be closely watched in the coming days. Kim will likely be focused on North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party meeting of senior politicians slated for the end of this month and his key speech on New Year’s Day.

“In this situation, should North Korea conduct an ICBM provocation, it is highly likely it will end up being stuck with more United Nations Security Council sanctions,” a former senior Korean Foreign Ministry official said. “In North Korea’s position, it may be more beneficial to bring in China and Russia and try to gain partial sanctions relief. It won’t try to cut ties with President Trump so rashly.”

Pyongyang and Washington generally have two routes of exchanging letters - through diplomatic or intelligence channels. In early August, Trump claimed that he received a “beautiful letter” from Kim “hand-delivered.”

At that time, a U.S. State Department official received Kim’s letter from Pyongyang officials personally at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom.

Several diplomatic sources said that until last year, communication was vibrant between the intelligence channel centered on Andrew Kim, the former director of the U.S. C.I.A.’s Korea Mission Center, and Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the North’s Workers’ Party. However, more recently, communication has been limited to the so-called New York channel, or through North Korea’s mission to the United Nations. Should a letter be delivered through the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, it can be sent at anytime regardless of Biegun’s or senior U.S. officials’ schedules.

Some analysts point out that it will be difficult for Washington and Pyongyang to rush into making the first move, however, because the moment of truth has come on whether North Korea will indeed denuclearize.

Woo Jung-yeop, head of the Seoul-based Sejong Institute’s Center for American Studies, said, “In Chairman Kim’s position, the personal letter card will not be that appealing unless President Trump promises something. The United States knows this could determine that there is too much risk to shoulder by sending a letter first.”

Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said, “For North Korea, the domestic position will need to be sorted first. During the Workers’ Party meeting, when a vision on a strategic route including a new path is determined, then there may be movement.”

BY LEE YU-JUNG, WIE MOON-HEE AND SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]