|South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk leaves Incheon International Airport for Tokyo, Sunday. Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
South Korea's chief nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk said, Sunday, that discussions with the United States on inter-Korean humanitarian projects had made significant progress.
He made the remarks at Incheon International Airport before traveling to Tokyo to hold a trilateral meeting with his U.S. and Japanese counterparts ― Sung Kim and Takehiro Funakoshi ― during a three-day visit there. Noh also plans to sit down with each of them one-on-one.
Noh's trip is noteworthy given that he will meet the U.S. envoy for the fourth time in four months ― after once in June and twice in August ― as the Biden administration is firmly committed to providing its support for inter-Korean humanitarian cooperation projects.
In addition, the trilateral meeting comes after a recent International Atomic Energy Agency report suggesting that North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon.
"I expect that the upcoming talks will be a productive step to accelerate the Korean Peninsula peace process," Noh told reporters.
"What we consider the most important is to resume talks with North Korea. To this end, South Korea and the U.S. have held talks about jointly carrying out humanitarian cooperation projects for North Korea, which have shown considerable progress."
In August, they discussed inter-Korean projects that include support for North Korea's fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other public health issues, such as clean drinking water.
"While continuing discussions on these issues, the two sides are also exploring a variety of measures to restart dialogue with North Korea," he added.
Noh also said the series of moves between the allies is a sign of their sincere efforts to resume nuclear talks with North Korea, which have been stalled since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Washington and Pyongyang in February 2019.
"They could discuss humanitarian assistance and something extra, such as the possibility of the U.S. partially lifting its sanctions on Pyongyang or the conditions for restarting talks," said Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
However, Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, said that he thinks the U.S. has an ulterior motive in its frequent meetings of the top nuclear negotiators.
"The U.S. appears to be taking advantage of its nuclear talks with South Korea as a means to ensure cooperation ― in other words, to have Seoul on Washington's side," he said.
"South Korea is seen by some as the weakest link among the Washington―Seoul―Tokyo trilateral security structure, so the Biden administration is trying to keep the country in check in its policy toward North Korea," Park surmised, "In that sense, the two sides have held multi-level talks."