|U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Beigun at the complex of South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in central Seoul, Aug. 21 during his four-day visit to Seoul from Aug. 20 to 23. Korea Times file|
By Jung Da-min
North Korea should return to the negotiating table with the United States by resuming working-level denuclearization talks, Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, said during a speech last Friday (local time) at the University of Michigan.
"We (the U.S.) have made clear to North Korea that we are prepared to engage as soon as we hear from them. We are ready, but we cannot do this by ourselves," Biegun said.
U.S.-North Korea working-level talks were supposed to take place around mid-July after the latest summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but have been delayed with North Korea conducting a series of missile tests that included short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs).
Biegun's visit to Seoul last month raised speculations that there could be a possible meeting with North Korean officials but this apparently did not happen, with North Korea condemning the U.S. for its joint military exercises with South Korea as well as the sanctions imposed on it.
The U.S. envoy said North Korea is risking its own security by testing SRBMs that would also cause neighboring countries South Korea and Japan to reconsider their own nuclear capabilities. He warned that this would harm long-term stability and peace in the region.
"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 said. "But how long will this conviction hold if such arms are a mere short-range ballistic missile flight away from their territory?"
Biegun also said it was important for the U.S. to continue efforts to create diplomatic space for North Korean officials in charge of working-level talks. He said the leader-to-leader engagement between Trump and Kim would play an important role in doing so, as North Korea's political system is more strictly controlled than that of the U.S. or any other country, and diplomatic decisions were made at the top level.
"[North Korea's political system] is a strictly controlled system, it is a rigid system, it is leader-driven. … That also is why we think it is a very constructive step forward for [President Trump] to engage, to directly be in charge creating diplomatic space for the people inside the system," Biegun said.
He said North Korea will be able to realize its full economic potential and enjoy security and stability if it makes a decision not to pursue the development of weapons of mass destruction, which is in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
On the possibility of the U.S. military forces being withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula if North Korea completes denuclearization, the U.S. envoy said that this was not currently likely. He said the U.S. military presence created stable conditions for regional peace when there was still a threat of war but added there could be other options if the denuclearization issue was addressed in some way.
"They (the U.S. forces) are playing a constructive and stabilizing role towards a durable peace. … Again, we're long way away from there (pulling out)," he said. "But of course, forces are driven by the perception of threat. If we can address the threat, we give ourselves a lot more options."
Biegun's remarks on the U.S. military presence in South Korea came amid recent speculation of a possible rift between the two allies following Seoul's decision not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. Washington voiced disappointment with Seoul's decision.
The South Korean and U.S. militaries also reportedly revealed differences over the scope of the U.S.-led U.N. Command's operational control in time of war after the two conducted a combined command post exercise last month that envisioned the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of Korean forces from Washington to Seoul.