|U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun / Korea Times file|
NK rules out talks ahead of US diplomat arrival
By Kang Seung-woo
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun's three-day visit to Seoul from Tuesday to Thursday will be focused on showing the strength of the South Korea-United States alliance, according to diplomatic experts.
They say the secretary and his counterpart will have to demonstrate that South Korea and the United States are on the same page about pending issues, including North Korea, rather than extending new offers to Pyongyang amid stalled nuclear negotiations.
Hours ahead of Bigun's arrival here, the North repeated its inflammatory rhetoric against the South's attempt to facilitate another U.S.-North Korea summit, reiterating that it has no immediate intent to resume dialogue with Washington.
"President Moon Jae-in is in the process of updating his foreign policy team. So Biegun's visit isn't about a breakthrough with North Korea, but rather alliance coordination with South Korea," Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, told The Korea Times.
Last Friday, Moon reshuffled his diplomacy and national security team, bring in so-called pro-North Korea figures including National Intelligence Service director nominee Park Jie-won, a key figure in arranging the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. The overhaul has raised speculation that the Moon administration may seek to push inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation without coordination with the U.S. government, which has insisted that such cooperation should proceed in lockstep with progress on denuclearization.
"Washington and Seoul want to be on the same page about upcoming defense exercises and how a bilateral working group can endorse more inter-Korean projects within the limits of international sanctions," Easley added.
The South Korea-U.S. working group, which was established in November 2018 to coordinate issues related to the North, is under fire for its "excessively harsh standards" that have often hindered progress in inter-Korean affairs. Last month, Lee Do-hoon, special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, met Biegun in the U.S. to discuss ways to improve the working group's operations.
Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy to the six-party talks, also said the Biegun visit is timely and significant as there are growing whispers that the allies disagree on policies toward North Korea.
"I think Biegun's visit to Seoul is important because, as allies, it's important that we collaborate closely on all issues, especially those affecting North Korea," DeTrani told The Korea Times.
"There has been too much speculation that U.S.-ROK relations are strained and going in a negative direction. If there are issues, like Special Measures Agreement (SMA)-related funding, then let's resolve it amicably and quickly, as we did previously."
The SMA determines the amount of money the government pays for the stationing of the U.S. Forces Korea and includes wages for Korean workers as well as the cost for construction projects and logistical support. The two sides have failed to narrow the gap on how much more the South should contribute despite multiple rounds of negotiations.
Through Biegun's visit, DeTrani advised the allies to show a strong alliance to the Kim Jong-un regime.
"I'm confident North Korea will be watching the Biegun visit closely, so it's important we show solidarity, with the goal of a peaceful resolution to issues with North Korea, pursuant to the Singapore Summit Joint statement of June 2018 and the Panmunjeom Declaration of April 2018," he said.
When Biegun's trip first came to light last week, speculation was rampant that he could be conveying a message from U.S. President Donald Trump to the North, which may include an offer to hold another summit ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.
However, experts say there is little chance that Biegun's visit would achieve a breakthrough in the nuclear talks.
"I doubt there will be a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations. Clearly the South Korean government is hoping for a breakthrough and they are doing everything, as signaled by the reshuffle of the senior leadership dealing with North Korea, to salvage their engagement policy," Daniel Sneider, an expert on Korean and Japanese foreign policy at Stanford University, told The Korea Times.
"But I see no evidence of a serious interest on the part of the North Korean leadership, or the Trump administration, to move from the positions they held going back to the Hanoi summit. Unless Biegun is bringing some indication that Trump is ready to give in to North Korean demands to lift sanctions in exchange for very limited moves on the nuclear front, I don't see much basis for another summit or even for any level of negotiations."
Earlier on Saturday, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said that his country did not feel any need to sit face to face with the U.S. accusing Washington of trying to take advantage of the bilateral talks as "a tool for grappling its political crisis."
"Explicitly speaking once again, we have no intention to sit face to face with the U.S.," Kwon Jong-gun, director-general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry's American Affairs Department, said in a statement.
U.S. Naval War College professor Terence Roehrig expects that the U.S. side might offer working-level talks to the North, which can help the stalled nuclear diplomacy.
"Any big breakthrough or announcement of a summit meeting is unlikely but perhaps there might be an offer on lower-level working group talks between the U.S. and North Korea," he said.
"Working-level talks may be the better starting point for dialogue to resume to see what may be possible rather than another summit. Dialogue and diplomacy that are part of a well-thought out strategy are worth the effort but expectations of the possible outcomes need to be tempered with realism."