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Purpose of U.S. special envoy Stephen Biegun’s visit to S. Korea

#Issues l 2020-07-09

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ YONHAP News

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun made a three-day visit to South Korea on July 7th. He met briefly with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on Wednesday morning before he met with First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young조세영 and Seoul’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon. On Thursday, he met with the new head of the Office of National Security, Suh Hoon서훈 to discuss North Korean nuclear issues. 


Deputy Secretary Biegun’s visit came seven months after his last one and it was the first trip by a high-ranking American official since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. His presence in Seoul gained attention as inter-Korean relations have chilled and the possibility was raised of a third summit between Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump before the election. Here’s political commentator Lee Jong-hoon to tell us more.


Biegun’s visit has a lot to do with the current tension between the two Koreas. North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong and has been pressuring South Korea. I believe President Moon Jae-in wants to resolve this situation as quickly as possible. When President Moon spoke to President Charles Michel of the European Council on June 30th, he mentioned the need to set up another summit between Pyongyang and Washington before the U.S. presidential election in November. I think the South Korean government wanted to arrange the summit as soon as possible, which is why Deputy Secretary Biegun came to South Korea amid the pandemic.


Much attention was placed on what kind of message the American nuclear envoy would bring for the Pyongyang regime. Some even speculated that he might meet with North Korean officials at Panmunjeom. But he flatly denied that he has any plans to contact North Koreans during this visit. Deputy Secretary Biegun clearly said that this visit was to sit down with the American ally, adding that he doesn’t take orders from North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui최선희 or former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton. Through this, he was emphasizing that Washington’s policy is not dictated by Pyongyang’s actions. 


What Special Representative Biegun meant to say was that dialogues with South Korea and Japan come first for the United States and no irrational actions will be taken to improve relations with North Korea. 


It would be rather strange to not talk about North Korea when North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe already issued a statement, so Biegun had to make a comment, even if it was just a formality. When Biegun was in Seoul late last year, he had stated that he wanted to meet with North Korean representatives. However, that proposal was rejected by the Pyongyang regime. Given last year’s humiliation, Biegun probably didn’t want to appear desperate for a meeting when North Korea didn’t react enthusiastically to his visit. 


As political commentator Lee Jong-hoon just mentioned, North Korea stated that it does not want another summit with the United States on the very day Deputy Secretary Biegun arrived in South Korea. Kwon Jong-gun권정근, the head of the North Korean foreign ministry’s North America Department, said he has no intentions to sit down with the Americans and firmly refused South Korea’s mediation attempt. It was in line with the July 4th remark by Choe Son-hui, Biegun’s North Korean counterpart, that said there is no need to sit down with the United States. Why did North Korea launch a verbal attack ahead of Biegun’s visit?


It’s bound to be one of the following two reasons. North Korea believes that Donald Trump is unlikely to win the November election and it would be better to negotiate with the next U.S. president. So, the Pyongyang leadership decided not to talk with the Trump administration anymore. The other reason is that the North’s recent exhibition of fury was an attempt to gain an upper hand in future negotiations. North Korea has always used the brinksmanship strategy to maximize their bargaining power. Moreover, it left the second North Korea-US summit empty-handed. It’s obvious that Pyongyang does not want to resume negotiations unless it has gained something more concrete.


Meanwhile, North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to mark the 26th anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s death. He was rumored to be in bad health when he didn’t show at the memorial hall on April 15th, Kim Il-sung’s birthday. 

Kim Il-sung’s birthday, known as the Day of the Sun, is publicized as the greatest holiday in North Korea. This April was the first time when Kim Jong-un failed to visit the Kumsusan Palace since he came to power. So, when the North Korean leader showed up for the anniversary of his grandfather’s death while the American nuclear envoy was in Seoul, people expected to hear his message to the White House, but no such statement was made.


I believe that Kim Jong-un has given separate roles to his sister Kim Yo-jong and other working-level officials. I think if Kim Jong-un is to make a move, it’s likely to be a personal letter to President Trump. Officially, North Korea will send someone like Vice-Minister Choe Son-hui to talk tough to Washington, while Kim jong-un will maintain the role of a good cop by sending a friendly letter to the American president. President Trump said in an interview that he would meet with Kim again if it would help. He also added that he maintains a good relationship with the North Korean leader. Given these circumstances, there is a chance that Kim would send a letter, if not a special envoy, in the wake of Biegun’s visit.


Special Representative Biegun made it clear that he has no plans to meet with North Koreans during his visit, but stressed that he would continue the efforts to resume nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang with the help from Seoul. At a press conference following the meeting with top South Korean nuclear envoy, Biegun said that the U.S. supports inter-Korean cooperation to stabilize the political situation on the Korean Peninsula. He also said that the U.S. is willing to be flexible in order to reach a balanced agreement, should North Korea decide to return to talks. 


It seems that Washington is open to dialogue with Pyongyang at any time. Although North Korea has been very harsh toward the U.S. recently, it cannot be said with certainty that Kim Jong-un wants to actually end talks. 


He may not want another summit with President Trump, but there is a possibility that he has been sending such messages to boost his bargaining power. In that respect, the North may be saying one thing while actually wanting another, like a third summit. It seems that North Korea wants to make it clear that it will not come to the talks if the North Koreans are sent back empty-handed again like they were at the last summit. 


Experts believe that it would be hard to resume any kind of talk, be it a summit or a working-level nuclear negotiation, unless Washington offers new, concrete denuclearization terms that are enticing enough to draw out Pyongyang. This is why Biegun’s visit cannot be expected to kickstart DPRK-US talks. The real reason Biegun was in Seoul may be that he wanted to get acquainted with the new national security officials. Biegun himself had said, “This visit is to meet with our close friends and allies, the South Koreans.” The Moon Jae-in administration’s new national security officials and diplomats are getting ready to restart the Korean Peninsula Peace Process. They are rising to the challenge of resuming talks with North Korea. 


The latest South Korean national security lineup is definitely geared toward the North, reflecting President Moon Jae-in’s strong commitment to improving inter-Korean relations. He is trying to use all the human resources available to resume talks with the North Koreans. He has put together a team of experts that North Korea is likely to consider as qualified counterparts, which is why some South Koreans think the new national security officials are too friendly toward the North. I am also concerned that Seoul’s policies may be swayed too much by Pyongyang when the democratic country should maintain its strong alliance with Washington. On the other hand, there are high hopes for a dramatic turning point in inter-Korean relations towards the end of President Moon’s presidential term. We may see a very creative solution to the current stalemate. 


But no matter how creative an approach may be, it is useless unless North Korea responds. North Korean diplomat Choe Son-hui made it clear that there will be no talks and mocked President Moon for offering to mediate Washington and Pyongyang.


But it still isn’t clear what North Korea really wants to do – actually refuse to take part in future negotiations or obtain better leverage in nuclear talks. So, we now have to wait and see how Pyongyang would respond after Special Representative Biegun’s visit.

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