- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Trump administration is struggling to inject new momentum into the denuclearization talks with North Korea, amid signs the U.S.-South Korean alliance is facing new strains over Seoul’s unwillingness to pay more for American troops stationed in the South.

Officials revealed Tuesday that State Department Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will be in Seoul for the rest of this week on a mission to strengthen joint U.S.-South Korea efforts to move ahead of the sluggish pace of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

But insiders acknowledge it may be an uphill battle, given the current stalemate with South Korea over paying for U.S. troops, and the fact that Mr. Biegun’s trip comes just days after Pyongyang lashed out at Washington’s recent imposition of human rights sanctions against officials close to Mr. Kim.

In a biting statement Sunday, North Korea’s foreign ministry threatened to “block the path to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula forever” if the U.S. continues to raise the human rights issue, which President Trump had initially left off the table in his initial push for a breakthrough with Mr. Kim.

President Trump has pointed to a sharp reduction in tensions in East Asia — including a halt to Pyongyang’s testing of new missiles and nuclear devices — since his groundbreaking summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore this summer, but analysts say the drive for denuclearization on the peninsula is badly in need of fresh momentum, amid signs the U.S. and its key allies may be moving ahead at radically different speeds.

While North Korea’s recent hostility may not be directly tied to recent U.S.-South Korea disagreements, the defense payment issue is adding complexity and urgency to the administration’s nuclear diplomacy.

“Everything is related to everything, so you can’t separate out the political problems relating to the sluggishness in the U.S.-South Korea alliance negotiations from the North Korea negotiations, they are intermingled and do affect each other,” said Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Mr. Cronin stressed he remains optimistic the North Korea negotiations can regain momentum but noted there is something of a “maelstrom” putting the entire process into a “holding pattern” at the moment.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group wrote in an analysis this week that the “lack of progress means that U.S.-North Korean relations could easily turn ugly once more,” particularly because “hardliners on both sides (and in South Korea, too) are poised to exploit opportunities to derail talks altogether.”

Mr. Trump insists his prime diplomatic achievement remains on track.

“Many people have asked how we are doing in our negotiations with North Korea,” the president tweeted late last week. “I always reply by saying we are in no hurry. … We are doing just fine!”

Looking for progress

But even administration officials privately acknowledge there has been little movement since a meeting planned last month between North Korean officials and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was abruptly canceled.

On one highly symbolic outcome of the Singapore summit — an agreement to speed up the return of the remains of thousands of U.S. personnel still missing in the Korean War — there has been little evident progress after the first shipment of 55 boxes of remains from Pyongyang arrived in Hawaii in August. The Pentagon agency in charge of recovering the remains told the Associated Press last week that direct talks with the North on additional cooperation on identifying and recovering remains haven’t even begun.

While the White House says it is still pushing for second Trump-Kim summit to occur in early 2019, it is unclear whether Mr. Kim will agree. The North Korean leader has yet to move on potential breakthrough diplomatic meetings with other leaders in recent months.

A rumored visit to Pyongyang by Chinese President Xi Jinping reported to be in the works hasn’t happened. Nor has a meeting between Mr. Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly extended an invitation for Mr. Kim to visit Russia.

Also unclear is whether Mr. Kim will come through on highly touted plans to visit Seoul by the end of the year, in what would be the first ever visit to the South Korean capital by a North Korean leader.

If the visit happens — a big if — it would cap a period in which North and South Korea have quietly been making progress away from the nuclear issue through private military-to-military talks, even moving to destroy guard posts along the demilitarized zone that has divided the two nations since the 1950-53 Korean war was frozen by stalemate. U.S. officials both publicly and privately have grumbled that the North-South rapprochement may be moving ahead too quickly, undercutting the need for coordination and unity among the U.S. and its allies on the nuclear issue.

On denuclearization, Washington’s overwhelming priority, North Korea so far has taken only minimal steps. Mr. Kim has pledged to dismantle certain non-essential operations — most notably the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the Tongchang-ri intercontinental missile test facility, and the Yongbyon production complex — if the U.S. takes thus far unspecified corresponding actions.

Hardliners around Mr. Trump, who are far more skeptical of the North’s intentions, say more serious moves must occur before the administration makes any major concessions, including on Pyongyang’s negotiating priority — easing international economic sanctions.

But Mr. Cronin said there’s reason to believe the administration may be “more flexible” than it appears in public.

“People think this process is all moribund and dead, but it’s not. The two sides are just circling each other right now,” he said. “The idea that everything must be denuclearized before any sanctions can come off is an oversimplification.”

Mr. Cronin said the White House could set up an “escrow account” for money seized through U.S. sanctions against Pyongyang, and potentially make access to the funds a carrot to entice the Kim regime into taking more robust denuclearization steps.

Such an account would also “buy Kim face within his own government, where he appears to be confronting some challenges right now,” Mr. Cronin added. “It may help him overcome tumult within the North Korean leadership elite over whether Kim is on the right path or has extended himself too far in talks with the U.S. and South Korea.”

Critical trip

U.S. officials say they remain determined to revive the diplomatic energy that followed the historic June summit in Singapore, after which the North Korean leader raised the notion that he might totally abandon his nuclear arsenal as early as January 2021.

Enter Mr. Biegun and his trip to Seoul this week. The State Department said Tuesday that Mr. Biegun will be meeting with South Korean Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon and others to “further strengthen U.S.-[South Korea] coordination on our shared objective of the final, fully verified denuclearization of the [North Korea].”

The question now is whether that coordination is being jeopardized by the disagreement over how much the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is willing to pay for the ongoing American troop presence in South Korea.

Mr. Trump has frustrated the Moon government over the past two years by demanding Seoul bear more of the cost of roughly 30,000 U.S. military personnel in the South. South Korean officials have told Reuters that, despite 10 rounds of negotiations since March, the two sides have struggled to reach an agreement.

The news agency reported that the latest talks occurred last week be failed to result in an accord to replace a 2014 deal due to expire this year, which requires South Korea to pay roughly $850 million this year.

Sources familiar with the talks have told The Times the situation is causing “wariness” among U.S. officials, because it could lead to perceptions in North Korea that there is a “lack of a united front” between Washington and Seoul.

State Department Deputy Press Secretary Robert Palladino deflected a question on the standoff Tuesday, asserting that “talks are ongoing” over how much South Korea will pay.

Another State Department official told The Times that “President Trump’s firm policy is and has been that America’s allies need to pay more for things like this and that’s as true in East Asia as it is in Europe.”

The official, speaking on background, added that U.S. negotiators are confident an agreement for South Korea to pay more than the current $850 million Seoul is putting toward the U.S. troop presence will be reached soon. Published reports say the Trump administration is seeking an increase to as much as $1.2 billion from Seoul.

The vast majority of the funds would go toward paying salaries for the nearly 9,000 South Koreans who provide technical and administrative services for the U.S. military. U.S. negotiators “have made it clear” to their South Korean counterparts that those employees will be put on furlough early in 2019 if no agreement is reached on increased funding from Seoul.

Mr. Cronin, meanwhile, downplayed the current disagreement, saying it is “not representative of a strategic rupture in the U.S.-South Korea alliance.”

“There are just political reasons in Seoul and in Washington not to be able to close the deal right now,” he said. “There will be closer on this agreement and it will happen in 2019, even if this is not ideal in terms of having the issue delayed.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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