- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

President Trump’s top envoy for North Korea sought to kick-start stalled nuclear talks with Pyongyang on Wednesday, asserting during a visit to South Korea that the U.S. is eager to meet with officials of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime and is just waiting for a response.

U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun pushed aside the recent wave of heated rhetoric and missile tests by the Kim regime to make the public overture, which was carefully timed to coincide with the conclusion of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that Pyongyang has sharply criticized over the past month.

Although North Korea gave no immediate response, a high-level diplomatic source said there are clear indications that “working level” talks are likely by the end of August or during the first week of September. “There haven’t yet been communications on when or where, or exactly what will be discussed, but the signs are there that the North Koreans will respond positively to Biegun’s offer,” the source told The Washington Times.

Mr. Biegun’s move was a direct response to an informal message Mr. Trump said he received from Mr. Kim two weeks ago: a three-page letter that Mr. Trump described as “beautiful.” The president told reporters that the North Korean leader had offered a “small apology” for carrying out a string of missile tests and indicated a desire to allow lower-level talks to proceed after the conclusion of the U.S.-South Korean military drills.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim have held three face-to-face meetings since the summer of 2018, but U.S. officials have had trouble translating the high-level summitry into concrete progress to curb the North’s nuclear and missile programs.



North Korea has long condemned the annual drills and called them rehearsals for a U.S.-South Korean invasion of the North. Although U.S. officials have said this year’s drills, which were held from Aug. 5 through Tuesday, were kept low-key to avoid a serious escalation, the Kim regime still responded with threatening messages and a flurry of short-range missile tests.

Mr. Biegun told reporters in South Korea that he and his team “are prepared to engage [in negotiations] as soon as we hear from our counterparts in North Korea.” He said Mr. Trump assigned the team to build on the momentum from his surprise meeting in June with Mr. Kim along the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea.

Reviving diplomacy

The DMZ meeting, which came about after Mr. Trump tweeted an invitation to Mr. Kim during a visit to the region, was widely seen to have prevented a total collapse of the stalled nuclear diplomacy.

Talks between the two sides broke down during Mr. Trump’s second summit with Mr. Kim in February in Hanoi, Vietnam. Mr. Trump said he walked away because Mr. Kim was demanding sweeping sanctions relief for only a limited commitment to destroy part of his nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles arsenal. The North Koreans later disputed that characterization.

Analysts dubbed the DMZ meeting as a mainly symbolic “handshake” summit in which Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim made overtures to restart talks but again stopped short of engaging in any specifics.

North Korea’s recent missile launches have prompting warnings from National Security Adviser John R. Bolton that the tests violated long-standing U.N. Security Council resolutions. He told Voice of America last week that U.S. officials had determined at least one of the launches was of a KN-23 missile likely capable of striking “all of South Korea and parts of Japan.”

However, Mr. Bolton also suggested that the Trump administration was willing to overlook the activity. He said the launches did not technically violate a promise Mr. Kim made during his first summit with Mr. Trump, in June 2018 in Singapore, to halt all nuclear bomb, intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile tests.

The diplomatic source who spoke with The Times said working-level talks this time could result in a breakthrough because the “absence of working-level negotiations after Singapore is the reason the second summit in Hanoi broke down without any real progress.”

Some analysts were circumspect Wednesday.

“The US has been ‘always ready’ to resume (or actually start) nuclear talks,” David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and a North Korea analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said in comments emailed to reporters.

“It is the North that has yet to commit to substantive working-level negotiations,” Mr. Maxwell said. “Kim is either unwilling or unable to commit and empower a negotiating team to conduct denuclearization talks, and he has used every excuse, particularly routine [U.S.-South Korean drills], to not undertake such talks.”

Mr. Biegun, meanwhile, told reporters he is “fully committed to this important mission, and we will get this done.”

The special envoy denied media speculation that he may be appointed as U.S. ambassador in Russia. “I will remain focused on making progress on North Korea,” he said in Seoul, where he met Wednesday with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon.

Meanwhile Wednesday, the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea were meeting in Beijing to encourage progress on North Korean denuclearization at a time of tense relations between Tokyo and Seoul over trade.

In talks with Japan’s Taro Kono and South Korea’s Kang Kyung-wha, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing will work with the two countries to maintain multilateralism, free trade and stability in the region.

China also used the trilateral meeting to oppose the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missiles in South Korea and Japan now that the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is no longer in force.

China, which is North Korea’s neighbor and closest economic and political ally, has threatened to punish any country willing to host such missiles. Chinese state media said Mr. Wang brought up the issue in separate meetings with Mr. Kono and Ms. Kang on Tuesday.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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