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Biegun warns that window for deal is closing

Nov 28,2018
Stephen Biegun, the top U.S. nuclear envoy, warned Seoul during a working group meeting last week that the “window of opportunity is closing” for a nuclear deal between the United States and North Korea, according to a U.S. government official.

This Washington official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday that Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, informed his South Korean counterpart that the current “ambiguous” situation, where North Korea refuses to respond to offers for denuclearization talks, cannot continue.

Biegun and Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, led the first working group meeting on Nov. 20 in Washington. The working group, composed of diplomats and officials from other relevant government bodies, was launched to bolster coordination between South Korea and the United States during the North’s denuclearization process. Biegun reportedly made the remarks during one-on-one talks with Lee.

Biegun referred to North Korea canceling talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, set for Nov. 8 in New York. The North was then unresponsive to offers by Washington to reschedule the meeting for Nov. 27 and 28.

Pompeo said earlier this week in a radio interview that Washington is “prepared to be patient” with North Korea. At the same time, the Trump administration is recognizing that it can’t wait forever. The Washington source said that those backing a North-U.S. deal are being “driven to a corner” domestically. Democrats will take control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the midterm elections earlier this month, and they have conveyed the position that the stalling cannot continue.

Biegun’s remarks to Lee indicate that Washington may want Seoul to tell Pyongyang that there is nothing to be gained from delaying the North-U.S. negotiations.

This can be considered a warning message to North Korea as no progress on denuclearization has been made since Pompeo’s fourth visit to Pyongyang this year on Oct. 7. Washington could be hinting it may have to consider another method if the window of opportunity closes. At the same time, Washington could be urging Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

The U.S. government may also be revealing that it is shifting its stance on the North-U.S. negotiations.

On Nov. 15, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said that Washington will not require North Korea to hand over a list of nuclear and missile sites ahead of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. On Nov. 21, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis indicated that Seoul and Washington will reduce the scope of the Foal Eagle exercise, a major annual joint military drill next spring, “to keep it at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy.”

However, the Trump administration may be losing patience with North Korea as it continues to ignore overtures for talks. Biegun, now in his fourth month as Washington’s top nuclear envoy, has yet to have a meeting with his counterpart, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.

The term “window of opportunity” for diplomacy was also used by John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, to describe the situation in Iraq on Jan. 28, 2003. The United States invaded Iraq on March 20 that year.

During the working group meeting, Biegun reiterated Washington’s stance that the sanctions on the North will not be eased until its complete denuclearization. The South Korean side emphasized its plan for a visit by the North Korean leader to Seoul, a declaration to end to the 1950-53 Korean War and a groundbreaking ceremony for an inter-Korean railway project, which Washington said it will work to support. Washington, however, reportedly conveyed concern over delays in finishing a multi-year cost-sharing deal for U.S. troops in South Korea. The current deal is set to expire at the end of this year.

BY KIM HYUN-KI, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]