[News analysis] Will Pyongyang answer Biegun’s call?

Posted on : 2019-12-17 17:45 KST Modified on : 2019-12-17 18:00 KST
US indicates willingness to gradual, simultaneous, complementary approach
US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun holds a press conference at the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Dec. 16. (Kim Hye-yun, staff photographer)
US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun holds a press conference at the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Dec. 16. (Kim Hye-yun, staff photographer)

After Stephen Biegun, the US State Department’s special representative for North Korea, publicly offered to meet North Koreans on Dec. 16, during his visit to South Korea, the next question revolves around the possibility of reviving the North Korea-US negotiations, which broke down in Stockholm in early October. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that Biegun mentioned “feasible steps,” “flexibility,” and “balanced agreements,” all expressions that seem catered to North Korea’s desired approach. But since Biegun didn’t specify a “new calculation,” as North Korea has demanded, it remains to be seen whether the North will actually return to dialogue.

After completing deliberations with South Korean diplomats on Monday, Biegun told reporters that the US won’t abandon its commitment to making progress in the negotiations with North Korea. Biegun’s use of the phrase “feasible steps” was especially striking. “We have offered any number of creative ways to proceed with feasible steps and flexibility in our negotiations to reach balanced agreements that meet the objectives of both [North Korea and the US],” Biegun said during a press conference on the same day.

Biegun’s remarks can be interpreted to mean that the US is willing to take a gradual, simultaneous, and complementary approach to making a trade with North Korea, with the US winding down its “hostile policy toward North Korea,” such as by easing sanctions, in exchange for the North taking steps toward denuclearization. They also echo the hope expressed in a Sept. 20 statement by Kim Myong-gil, roving ambassador for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and envoy to working-level talks with the US in Stockholm, about Trump’s remarks on a “new method”: “It seems he wanted to imply that [the best option would be] a step-by-step solution starting with [what is] feasible.”

Uncertain whether N. Korea will resume dialogue

“This is an extremely sincere expression of the US’ hope to overcome the impasse in its dialogue with North Korea, and it can also be linked to the remark [by Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs] that every matter of interest to North Korea could be discussed if negotiations resume,” said a South Korean government official who is well-informed about the two countries’ negotiations.

“North Korea is asking for its steps toward denuclearization and the US’ corresponding measures – including sanctions relief and a security guarantee – to be treated fairly and equivalently and to be incorporated into a step-by-step implementation process. The American position has been to reach an all-inclusive deal at the outset and then to take corresponding measures at each phase of the process, though even those might not be equivalent trades. Biegun’s remarks yesterday seem aimed at accepting the North Korean approach, which would be a step forward,” said Hong Min, director of the North Korea research office at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

On Monday, Biegun also repeatedly urged North Korea to come to the table for talks, while confirming Trump’s trust in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and emphasizing that Trump had entrusted him with holding negotiations. Biegun explained that Trump had said repeatedly that he was confident that Kim is working to achieve the same goal as the US and added that the American negotiating team was prepared to work with North Korea to achieve that goal, on instructions from the president.

Biegun also commented about statements that North Korean officials have sent to the US recently, describing them as “so hostile and negative and so unnecessary.” The message of those statements, he said, did not reflect the content or spirit of the two countries’ deliberations in Pyongyang, New York, Washington, Singapore, Stockholm, Hanoi, and Panmunjom.

Biegun calls on N. Korea to refrain from additional military actions

The US envoy also called on North Korea to refrain from additional military actions. According to Biegun, the North’s 13 tests of new strategic weapons and tests carried out on Dec. 7 and 13 at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, in Tongchang Village, which were presumably missile engine combustion tests, don’t help bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. But he added that there’s still time for North Korea and the US to choose a better way.

Referring to North Korea’s threat to go down a “new path” unless the US has a change of heart and the North’s declaration of an “end-of-the-year deadline,” Biegun flatly said that “the United States does not have a deadline.” He also expressed his hope that Christmas, which he described as the most sacred holiday in the year, would be peaceful, calling on North Korea to refrain from provocative behavior. This was apparently a response to the North’s warning about a “Christmas present.”

By Noh Ji-won, staff reporter

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

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