[News analysis] Biegun leaves S. Korea with no response from North

Posted on : 2019-12-18 17:38 KST Modified on : 2019-12-18 17:38 KST
Experts say Pyongyang unlikely to return to provocations of 2017
US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun at Gimpo International Airport with Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, on Dec. 17. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)
US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun at Gimpo International Airport with Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, on Dec. 17. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)

On the afternoon of Dec. 17, Stephen Biegun, the US State Department’s special representative for North Korea and nominee for secretary of state, completed a three-day trip to South Korea and headed to Tokyo, Japan. According to a high-ranking source who is tracking developments, there were no indications that Biegun either delivered a personal letter from Trump or met with the North Koreans in Panmunjom during his time in the country. In short, Biegun’s visit failed to create an opportunity to change the course of developments on the Korean Peninsula, amid rapidly increasing tensions.

Biegun made some serious observations about North Korea during his visit to the South, which boil down to three points. First, the US doesn’t accept the “end-of-the-year deadline” set by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Biegun said the US doesn’t have a deadline and hasn’t given up on the negotiations. Second, Biegun assented to North Korea’s preferred method, in other words a step-by-step approach. The envoy said he would pursue “balanced agreements” that contain “flexible measures” divided into “feasible steps.” Third, Biegun said that Christmas is a “sacred” holiday, while calling for restraint from North Korea. While Biegun didn’t take a hard line in his remarks, neither did he make any obvious offers to halt military exercises with South Korea or ease or lift sanctions, as North Korea has demanded.

That has prompted conflicting assessments of Biegun’s visit. Government officials in Seoul said that, since Biegun expressed a genuine commitment to the negotiations, the North Koreans ought to come to the negotiating table, if only to verify that commitment. But veteran observers who have watched the various twists and turns in North Korea-US relations over the years don’t think that North Korea will return to dialogue because the US didn’t even hint at what concessions it’s willing to make.

Kim could halt negotiations if there’s no progress by end of year

Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un paid a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum that houses the bodies of his father and grandfather, on the eighth anniversary of the passing of former leader Kim Jong-il. North Korea’s state-run newspaper the Rodong Sinmun reported this news on Dec. 17, but didn’t include any of Kim Jong-un’s remarks. The “new path” that Kim has promised is expected to be revealed during the 5th plenary session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which will be held toward the end of December (likely around Christmas) and during Kim’s speech on the New Year.

The Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim “visited the hall of immortality where Comrade Kim Jong-il, our great leader, lives on, to bow in a token of the highest respect and gratitude” on the first page of its Dec. 17 edition, which included various photographs of Kim’s mausoleum visit, but no public remarks from him. The time of the visit was also not revealed.

The Rodong Sinmun added that Kim was accompanied by Choe Ryong-hae, WPK vice chairman, Park Pong-ju, vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and North Korean Premier Kim Jae-ryong.

While South Korean government projections are mostly pessimistic, officials don’t think the Korean Peninsula will come as close to war as it did in 2017. The Ministry of Unification (MOU) acknowledged that, if there’s no progress in the North Korea-US negotiations by the end of the year, Kim could conceivably announce he’s halting negotiations with the US in his New Year’s speech. Even so, the MOU believes the North will steer clear of the kind of radical confrontation seen in 2017 and continue to seek opportunities for dialogue, presuming a shift in the US’ policy toward the North. The MOU said that the North will strive to boost its economy despite the sanctions while doubling down on self-reliance. Pyongyang could also attempt to create favorable conditions abroad by strengthening relations with China and Russia through economic cooperation, which it could then use as leverage with the US.

North’s continued emphasis on self-reliance and economic prosperity

North Korea has itself emphasized bootstrapping its way to prosperity, suggesting that it will hold to its strategic line of focusing on economic development. The Rodong Sinmun reported that the WPK politburo figures who visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun with Kim vowed to accept “the guidance of the Supreme Leader [i.e., Kim Jong-un] as he ushers in a new era in which we achieve revival, and prosperity, through our own efforts.” It doesn’t seem likely that North Korea will carry out strategic military action, such as launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a satellite, at least before Kim’s address for the New Year, since such steps would sow chaos on the Korean Peninsula and distract attention from the address.

Another notable development is the Chinese and Russian governments’ submission of a draft resolution to the UN Security Council that would lift some sanctions currently on North Korea. While this probably won’t have any immediate results, because of the veto power held by the US, UK, and France, it hints at future changes in the contours of debate over the North Korean issue at the UN Security Council. China and Russia’s action is aimed at both pressuring the US and also placating North Korea, effectively asking for it to exercise restraint, since its friends are doing what they can.

The crucial factor in Kim’s choice will ultimately be the response from US President Donald Trump. On Dec. 16, Trump said that North Korea was up to something that would probably be disappointing, but suggested that people “wait and see.” He wasn’t taking a hard line, but he wasn’t offering any new information, either.

“We’re still not sure the extent to which Trump thinks that the North Korean nuclear issue will impact his reelection campaign,” said Han Seung-ju, former foreign minister and current director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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