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Biegun flies to Beijing, but all eyes are on North

Dec 20,2019
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, kicked off a two-day trip to Beijing Thursday prompting speculation that he may make last-ditch efforts to meet with North Korean officials, such as Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, before the end of the year.

An encounter in Beijing may be the last opportunity for Biegun to make contact with North Korean officials before Pyongyang’s self-imposed year-end deadline for Washington to come up with a different approach to denuclearization talks. China has also been pushing for partial sanctions relief for the North, which has been promising a “Christmas gift” to U.S. President Donald Trump - possibly the launch of a long-range missile.

Biegun didn’t respond to reporters’ questions on whether he will make contact with North Korean officials upon his arrival at the Beijing Capital International Airport Thursday afternoon following a two-day trip to Japan.

A North Korean flag carrier Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang was spotted landing in Beijing earlier Thursday, though it was unconfirmed if there were key North Korean officials on it. Some suspected Choe was on it.

A South Korean government official said Thursday, “Vice Minister Choe Son-hui did not appear in China as of Wednesday. Air Koryo Flight JS251 landed in Beijing on Thursday, but it is unclear whether she boarded this flight.”

This flight, which operates between Beijing and Pyongyang on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, is often used by North Korean officials. Unless Pyongyang officials boarded the Thursday flight, there would be slim chance that they would be in Beijing during Biegun’s visit, which follows stops in Seoul and Tokyo earlier this week and runs through Friday.

There was also some speculation that Biegun could travel unexpectedly to Pyongyang from Beijing.

In Beijing, Biegun, nominated as the U.S. deputy secretary of state, was expected to meet with Chinese officials including his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui.

Biegun’s visit could also be a move by Washington to make sure Beijing stays on board the current sanctions regime on Pyongyang, rebuffing China and Russia’s recent push for a resolution calling for some sanctions relief for the North in the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. State Department views sanctions relief as “premature” at the current stage.

Luo in a press conference at the Chinese Foreign Ministry Thursday stressed that a draft resolution submitted by China and Russia to the UN Security Council earlier this week was the best solution to resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

In the UN Security Council draft resolution, China and Russia called for partial relief on some of the sanctions implemented in 2016 and 2017 as part of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign to cut off funding for North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program.

This included a lifting of bans on North Korea’s exports of seafood, textiles and statues, exempting inter-Korean rail and road cooperation projects from UN sanctions and enabling North Korean laborers expected to be repatriated next week to continue working overseas.

The draft resolution also urged the resumption of a multilateral consultation platform such as the six-party talks among China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas, aimed at denuclearizing the North but stalled since late 2008.

Another South Korean government official said, “I have not heard that North Korea sent a message that they would like to meet with the United States. The U.S. side is of the position that they would actively make contact if North Korea responds.”

Jeon Hyun-joon, a professor of North Korea studies at Kookmin University, said, “After China submitted the resolution, its Foreign Ministry spokesperson has been stressing to state media the need to withdraw sanctions on the North on a daily basis. There is a likelihood that China will emphasize to Biegun that the United States needs to yield to halt the North’s provocations, and in order to do that there has to be a lifting of sanctions.”

A trilateral summit among the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan is scheduled to be held on Dec. 24 in Chengdu, China, and analysts point out that North Korea conducting a provocation around Christmas could put a damper on this occasion hosted by China.

BY SARAH KIM, JEONG YONG-SOO [kim.sarah@jooongang.co.kr]