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Biegun arrives as North’s deadline nears

Whether envoy will meet with Pyongyang officials is unknown
Dec 16,2019
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, arrived in Seoul Sunday at a crucial juncture ahead of Pyongyang’s self-imposed year-end deadline for Washington to come up with a new approach.

On his three-day visit, Biegun is expected to meet with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon, the special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, and pay a courtesy call on President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House Monday.

What message Biegun brings from Washington will be closely monitored in Seoul.

Biegun usually holds talks with Chung Eui-yong, director of the National Security Office (NSO), or Kim Hyun-chong, second deputy director of the NSO. Moon last met Biegun 15 months ago on Sept. 11, 2018, just before his third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.

Ahead of Biegun’s visit, North Korea announced Saturday it conducted a second “crucial” test Friday at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang-ri, where it tested on Dec. 7 what was believed to be a rocket engine for a long-range missile. North Korea has abided by a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing since late 2017 to allow diplomacy to go ahead with the United States.

In a statement Saturday, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that it was “coordinating closely with our Korean and Japanese allies” after the test.

Since the collapse of the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi in late February, Pyongyang has been urging Washington to come up with a new proposal by the end of the year, warning it may otherwise take a “new way.”

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested military action remained an option and warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could lose “everything” if he engages in hostile acts, a revival of bellicose language from before the denuclearization dialogue commenced.

Biegun, who is nominated to become deputy secretary of state, will travel to Tokyo after Seoul.

In a statement, the U.S. State Department said the trip to Seoul and Tokyo from Sunday to Thursday is to “continue close allied coordination on North Korea.” It added that Biegun will be accompanied by Alex Wong, the deputy special representative for North Korea, and Allison Hooker, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian affairs.

In his first visit to Seoul in four months, Biegun arrived at Incheon International Airport around 4:20 p.m. Sunday but did not respond to reporters’ questions on whether he will make contact with North Korea.

Biegun stressed to reporters ahead of his departure from Washington Saturday that the United States maintains its policy of seeking North Korea denuclearization despite increased provocations, reported NHK.

But at the Washington airport, Biegun didn’t say whether he would be meeting North Korean officials during his Seoul visit.

There were some expectations that Biegun might make contact with North Korean officials at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom during the visit.

The No. 2 State Department position may give Biegun more leverage in negotiating with Pyongyang. Biegun told a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee deliberating his nomination to be deputy secretary of state last month that the person who would need to negotiate with him in the future is North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.

Biegun’s current counterpart is North Korean diplomat Kim Myong-gil. In early October, Biegun and Kim Myong-gil resumed working-level dialogue in Sweden for the first time since the Hanoi summit in February, but the talks broke off.

Ahead of traveling to Asia, Biegun made a visit to New York last week to meet with ambassadors to the United Nations and craft a unified approach on North Korea ahead of a Security Council meeting Wednesday. Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told the council that Washington is ready for a flexible approach and is prepared to take parallel actions and simultaneous steps during the denuclearization negotiations.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “I think we’re going to be tested here soon,” in the sense of “trying to get them back to the negotiating table.”

Esper said that North Korea already has nuclear weapons and is trying to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile which “becomes a direct threat to our homeland.”

Second deputy chief of the NSO Kim Hyun-chong tweeted Friday that he held “in-depth discussions” with U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Robert Abrams and U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas D. Weidley on the situation on the Korean Peninsula as well as defense cost-sharing negotiations.

James DeHart, top U.S. negotiator for the defense cost-sharing talks, also arrived in Seoul Sunday for another round of talks to renew the bilateral Special Measures Agreement.

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