SEOUL: US and North Korean nuclear envoys are set to discuss the details of their stalled nuclear disarmament talks ahead of a second summit between the two nations in Vietnam, expected to be held later this month.
After a three-day visit to Seoul, US Special Representative Stephen Biegun flew to Pyongyang early Wednesday morning. The summit is currently penciled in for Feb. 27-28.
The visit is Biegun’s second since traveling to the North Korean capital with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last October. During his stay in Seoul, Biegun had a series of meetings with top South Korean envoys, including Chung Eui-yong, a presidential national security adviser, to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization.
Biegun is expected to hold talks with his counterpart, Kim Hyok-chol, a former North Korean ambassador to Spain, during his stay in Pyongyang.
“It is a positive signal for the North to invite the US nuclear envoy to Pyongyang,” said Yim Sung-joon, a former national security adviser to former President Kim Dae-jung. “It is highly possible that he could meet with higher-ranking North Korean officials, hopefully Kim Jong-un, should talks go smoothly.”
Shin Beom-cheol, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, anticipated the Biegun-Kim talks would be focused on setting the agenda items for the second Trump-Kim Summit in Vietnam.
“The two diplomats are expected to discuss agenda items on the summit table,” Shin said. “I don’t think, however, they would be able to agree on complete denuclearization, but they would be able to narrow a gap over the shutdown of the North Korean Yongbyon nuclear facility.”
The North would instead demand “corresponding measures” including the lifting of US economic sanctions against the regime and some form of security guarantee. “The two sides are expected to be engaged in a tug-of-war over the verification of the destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor,” Shin added.
The North had alluded to the possibility of scrapping the Yongbyon complex during an Intra-Korean Summit in Pyongyang last September.
The regime also suggested that it might allow inspections of the site if it received US concessions.
Yongbyon is North Korea’s key nuclear facility, where plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the primary materials for its nuclear weapons, are produced.
Before flying to Seoul, Biegun said: “We are prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust between our two countries.”
He also hinted the Trump administration was prepared to take action simultaneously and in parallel with North Korea.
“Chairman Kim also committed, in both the joint statement from the aforementioned Pyongyang Summit, as well as during (Pompeo’s) October meetings in Pyongyang, to the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities,” he added.
Concerns are growing in some corners that offering such an exchange would lighten the pressure on the North, allowing it to slow denuclearization.
Conservative politicians are worried the upcoming Vietnam Summit could fall short of a moratorium on the activities of North Korea’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) program, which threatens the US mainland.
“We’re concerned that the Trump administration would try to eradicate the ICBM threat only for the sake of US national security,” said Yoon Young-seok, spokesman for the main opposition Liberty Korea Party. “If sanctions on the North are lifted without tangible progress of denuclearization, the North Korean nuclear problem will not be solved forever.”
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Trump reiterated that North Korea’s nuclear testing had stopped, and that there have been no further missile launches for 15 months.
That claim drew skepticism from Democrats and North Korea experts.
“Ok let’s be clear that North Korea’s successful acquisition of a nuclear ICBM is why there was no war with North Korea,” tweeted Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who studies North Korea and nuclear proliferation.
The last nuclear test by North Korea was conducted in September 2017. The regime also launched an ICBM in November 2017.