- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2020

The top U.S. diplomat for North Korea policy is headed to South Korea this week for what’s likely to be a final visit on behalf of the Trump administration, amid growing uncertainty for the incoming Biden administration over the way ahead for denuclearization talks that have been stalled for over a year.

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun, who also serves as the department’s special envoy for North Korea, is slated to arrive in Seoul on Tuesday, along with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for North Korea Alex Wong and National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Allison Hooker.

A range of thorny issues, including bilateral disagreements on defense cost-sharing and uncertainty over how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will react to the U.S. transition, are on the agenda for the visit, even though the U.S. delegation are all expected to be vacating their posts before or shortly after Mr. Biden is sworn in Jan. 20.

The State Department said Mr. Biegun and his South Korean counterparts will discuss the alliance, as well as “our shared commitment to regional security, stability, and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific, and continued close coordination on North Korea.”

The reference to the wider Indo-Pacific a Trump administration push to coordinate with other powers in the region — specifically India, Australia and Japan through the “Quad” alignment — as a bulwark against China.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha will host a banquet for Mr. Biegun, who has won respect there for his deft touch working the delicate North Korea file under Mr. Trump.

The push for a major denuclearization deal has fallen flat since the failure of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. But analysts say Mr. Biegun deserves credit for working behind-the-scenes with South Korea, North Korean and Russian counterparts ahead of and immediately after the summit, which was widely regarded as a precedent-shattering moment of direct diplomacy with the closed Kim regime.

The incoming Biden administration is expected to chart a different course on North Korea, which U.S. intelligence says has been clandestinely building up its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missile capabilities in violation of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions for decades.

But based on his own history and his campaign rhetoric, Mr. Biden appears unlikely to pursue the kind of high-stakes direct meetings with Mr. Kim that Mr. Trump undertook. Mr. Biden will instead likely push for a return to the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience,” which aimed to isolate Pyongyang through sanctions and avoid rewarding the Kim regime with diplomatic overtures.

Mr. Biden also appears poised to smooth over tension that has arisen during the Trump years on the issue of how much South Korean pay to support the presence of some 30,000 U.S. military personnel still stationed on the divided peninsula.

South Korean officials have expressed outrage in private over Trump administration demands that Seoul pay up to $5 billion a year — more than five times what the South Korean government currently pays — to house the American personnel. Mr. Trump has also suggested the U.S. troops could be withdrawn if the South Koreans refuse to pay more.

Mr. Biden suggested in a late-October op-ed provided to Yonhap that he intends to back off such pressure. “I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops,” Mr. Biden wrote.

David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces officer and now a North Korea analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, predicted that South Korean officials will likely raise it along with a range of other matters while pressing Mr. Biegun “for his assessment of any likely policy shift by the incoming administration.”

“I expect he will not provide such an assessment but instead will recommend continuity, starting with the importance of our linchpin alliance and the need to sustain sanctions and pressure” on North Korea, he said in an email comment, adding, “Any premature sanctions relief will be considered a victory for the regime’s blackmail diplomacy.”

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