[News analysis] Will N. Korea respond to Biegun’s persuasion and pressure?

Posted on : 2019-09-09 17:34 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Assessing the North’s likeliness of responding to the US’ plea for resumed dialogue
US State Department Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. (provided by the US State Department)
US State Department Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. (provided by the US State Department)

The US has finally come up with an answer of sorts for North Korea’s persistent questions. The answer came in a public speech at the University of Michigan on Sept. 6 by Stephen Biegun, the US State Department‘s special representative for North Korea.

North Korea had doubted that there was any substance in the “flexible approach” that Biegun proposed in a speech organized by the Atlantic Council on June 19. In his speech 80 days later, Biegun offered some allusive indications of what that approach might involve.

They included a refusal to rule out the possibility of “strategic reconsiderations” of US Forces Korea issues and a prediction that US President Donald Trump was “fully committed” to talks with North Korea over the year ahead.

Around the same time that Biegun was speaking publicly, Trump stressed on Sept. 4 that the US is “not looking for regime change” in North Korea, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on Sept. 6 that “every nation has the sovereign right to defend itself.” The remarks appeared to have been made in response to disgruntlement and objections from Pyongyang around the time of joint South Korea-US command post exercises last month.

Biegun’s reference to S. Korea’s and Japan’s nuclear armament if nuclear talks fail

The “carrot” strategy was not the only part of Washington’s response. A case in point was Biegun’s overt reference to the risk of South Korea and Japan pursuing nuclear armament if the North Korea-US nuclear talks fail. The open voicing by a current US senior official of concerns about South Korea and Japan arming themselves with nuclear weapons is seen as unprecedented. A veteran South Korean figure in foreign affairs and national security criticized the stance on Sept. 8 as “the kind of irresponsible message that far-right advocates of nuclear armament in South Korea and Japan will welcome.”

This has many watching to see the response from North Korea, following Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho’s recent denunciation of Pompeo in an Aug. 23 statement as a “poisonous plant of US diplomacy” and “disrupter” of North Korea-US negotiations and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui’s statement on Aug. 31 warning that Pyongyang’s “expectations of dialogue with the US are gradually disappearing” and that North Korea “will watch what calculations [Pompeo] has.” The US had been predicting – or hoping for – a resumption of working-level negotiations with the North around mid-September. But quite a few analysts said North Korea is unlikely to give a positive response while the US remains dead set against relieving or lifting sanctions as Pyongyang has demanded – a key factor in the collapse of the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi – and fundamentally committed to its approach of demanding denuclearization first before any corresponding measures in terms of regime security. This means several obstacles will need to be cleared for the North Korea-US working-level talks, which have been postponed since an oral agreement on June 30 by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump, can be resumed in the near future.

In the Sept. 6 speech at the University of Michigan, his alma mater, Biegun sent a message urging the North to agree to a swift resumption of working-level talks, stressing that the US was “prepared to engage as soon as we hear from them.”

“At this moment, to achieve further progress, the most important step we can take is for the United States and North Korea to work together to overcome the policies and demonstrations of hostility that compromise the simple ability of our diplomats to talk, and to sustain the rhythm of negotiations,” he added.

Question of adjusting USFK presence to placate N. Korea

“Both sides can quickly agree to significant actions that will declare to our respective peoples – and to the world – that US-North Korea relations have taken an irreversible turn away from conflict,” he said, adding that an important element would be a permanent peace regime as specified in the second item of the June 12 North Korea-US Joint Statement in Singapore. When asked about whether USFK troop numbers might be reduced as one corresponding measure for denuclearization, Pompeo said, “We’re a long way from there,” but added that there were many strategic reconsiderations included in their shift from training and maintaining a wartime readiness positive toward playing a “constructive and stabilizing role towards a durable peace.”

He went on to say that reducing tensions would mean that US troops would no longer need to maintain a constant readiness posture to prepare for war. Despite using abstract and cautious wording in light of the issue’s sensitivity, the gist of his message was that the US would not rule out readjustments to USFK as a corresponding measure in response to denuclearization. The issue of readjustments to USFK would have a huge impact on not only the South Korea-US alliance but on the establishment of a Korean Peninsula peace regime and a strategic framework in Northeast Asia – which makes it all the more unusual and notable for a current senior administration official to make such remarks publicly.

Biegun also said that Trump was “fully committed to making significant progress towards these goals in the year ahead.”

“Should Chairman Kim share in President Trump’s commitment to advance the ideas I have laid out today, he will find our team is ready to turn this vision into reality,” he added. Coming amid Kim’s reluctance to make a decision to resume negotiations, his remarks effectively sent a message of “trust us,” stressing Trump’s “commitment” to and his own team’s readiness for negotiations with the North.

Need for “concrete, tangible proposal”

A former senior South Korean official said Biegun “is stressing the US’ good will, but it’s still abstract.”

“If he wants to get the North to take action, he needs a concrete, tangible proposal, be it large or small,” the former official advised.

Biegun’s messages were not only positive. In his speech, he warned, “As always, there are consequences for failure, and I fear Dr. [Henry] Kissinger is correct that if the international community fails in this undertaking, North Korea will not be the last state in East Asia to acquire nuclear weapons.”

“Allies such as Japan and South Korea have forsworn nuclear weapons programs in part because they trust the protection of extended nuclear deterrence that is included in their alliances with the United States,” he noted.

“At what point will voices in South Korea or Japan, and elsewhere in Asia, begin to ask if they need to reconsider their own nuclear capabilities [if the North Korean nuclear negotiations fail]?” he asked, signaling concerns that a failure in the North Korean nuclear talks could lead to a nuclear “domino effect” in East Asia.

Biegun is seen as having touched on the sensitive topic as a way of pressuring not only current and former senior officials and experts in the US who are skeptical about negotiations with North Korea but also Pyongyang and Beijing to raise their focus and pace when it comes to negotiations. But some observers said also called his remarks “irresponsible” and “dangerous,” warning that they could fuel calls for nuclear armament that are already smoldering in both South Korea and Japan, especially among members of the far right. “Extended nuclear deterrence” refers to the US extending its allies the same defense as its own mainland through its nuclear umbrella, conventional weapons, and missile defense network – a framework that has historically been applied with the South Korea-US and US-Japan alliances and NATO.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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