Everyone’s Ready to Resume Talks, Except North Korea

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Lee Juhyun contributed to this report.

The latest round of U.S.-South Korean military exercises have finished. The top U.S. envoy for North Korea is in Seoul. Everything seems to be in place for the resumption of long-delayed working-level talks with North Korea. Everything, that is, except for North Korea. 

“We are prepared to engage as soon as we hear from our counterparts in North Korea,” said Stephen Biegun, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, who arrived in the South Korean capital Tuesday for a three-day visit.

Biegun met senior South Korean officials in Seoul on Wednesday, a day after the U.S. and South Korea wrapped up joint military drills. Although North Korea had hinted it could return to dialogue at the end of the exercises, it has given no fresh signs it is ready to engage Seoul or Washington.

U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun, left, pose with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.

Instead, a commentary in North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper blasted the United States’ “unchanged hostile policy,” saying the U.S.-South Korean military exercises never should have taken place. 

“We have warned more than twice that such a…scheme as the joint military exercises could prevent improvements in North Korea-U.S. relations and lead us to reconsider important measures that we have taken,” said the North’s ruling party daily.

The U.S., it added, is “pushing our country toward taking self-defense countermeasures to get rid of potential and direct threats.”

North Korea, which aims to split the U.S.-South Korean alliance, has continued to complain about the military exercises, even though Washington and Seoul scaled back the drills to help preserve the idea of talks.

The exercises this month were computer-based, according to reports, meaning there were no bombs dropped on dummy targets or overt, publicized displays of military strength. Instead, the drills mainly tested South Korea’s ability to retake operational control during wartime. 

According to U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised “to meet and start negotiations,” as well as stop launching missiles, as soon as the joint exercises finished.  

North Korea promises

It wouldn’t be the first time North Korea has dragged its feet on promises to restart talks.

Trump and Kim agreed agreed to resume working level negotiations in late June. Since then, U.S. officials have repeatedly said they hope the talks will begin within weeks.

“We haven’t gotten back to the table as quickly as we would have hoped,” Pompeo acknowledged in an interview with CBS News on Tuesday. “But we’ve been pretty clear all along: we know there’ll be bumps along the way.”

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, left, talks to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the East Asia Summit meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug. 2, 2019.

Asked whether he was bothered by North Korea’s repeated testing of short-range ballistic missiles, Pompeo replied: “Yes, I wish that they would not.” 

North Korea has conducted eight rounds of ballistic missile launches since early May, in what analysts say is an attempt to gain leverage ahead of possible talks. 

The missiles also demonstrate a crucial military capability: they are apparently designed to evade missile defense systems and can reach all of South Korea. 

United Nations Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from all ballistic missile activity, but Trump says he has “no problem” with the launches, noting they cannot reach the United States.

North Korea has warned it may conduct longer-range missile tests, or even nuclear tests, if the United States does not change its approach to nuclear talks by the end of the year.

‘We will get this done’

Despite the setbacks, Biegun, the top U.S. envoy for North Korea, remains optimistic, telling reporters “we will get this done.” 

“I am fully committed to this important mission,” Biegun said. 

Biegun added that he will not take the position of U.S. ambassador to Russia, as recent reports suggested. Trump on Tuesday indicated he may nominate Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan to the position.

Biegun’s visit has fueled speculation in Seoul that talks will resume soon.

“I believe it will start in late August or early September. No later than that,” says Kim Dong-yub, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

There is an urgency for talks to resume soon, Professor Kim believes, in part because the U.S. will soon be in the heart of presidential election season.

“Mr Trump needs to focus on his campaign,” he says. “He won’t be able to work on this very much for over a year and a half.”

Nuclear talks broke down after a February Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam ended without a deal. Neither side could agree on how to pair sanctions relief with steps to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. 

At their first summit in Singapore in June 2018, Trump and Kim agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But neither side has agreed on what denuclearization means or how to begin working towards it.

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