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US ready to restart negotiations with North Korea, but analysts expect little progress from talks

Special Representative Stephen Biegun Addresses the Press (U.S. Department of State/WikiCommons)
August 22, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Washington is ready to return to the negotiating table with Pyongyang to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea, Stephen Biegun, said Wednesday, following the conclusion of annual U.S.-South Korean joint military drills.

Speaking at a news conference in Seoul, Biegun told reporters that the U.S. is “prepared to engage as soon as we hear from our counterparts in North Korea,” noting that U.S. President Donald Trump had directed his team to restart working-level talks with Pyongyang.

“I am fully committed to this important mission and we will get this done,” Beigun said, dismissing speculation that he may be appointed as the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia.

“I will remain focused on making progress on North Korea,” he said.

Biegun was in Seoul for talks with South Korea, and his counterpart, Lee Do-hoon said the two had discussed how to resume negotiations with the North and make “substantial progress.”

His statement on Wednesday came a day after U.S. and South Korean militaries ended 10 days of joint exercises that largely focused on computer simulations instead of previous large-scale annual drills to expedite talks with North Korea, but during which Pyongyang repeatedly tested missiles and issued public insults to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since Trump refused to lift sanctions on North Korea in exchange for a pledge by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to partially disarm during a second summit between the two in Vietnam in February.

The pair met for a third summit in June at the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone and agreed to restart talks, but no date has been set to do so.

Trump said earlier this month that he had received a letter from Kim, asking to resume negotiations after the U.S.-South Korean drills came to a close.

Little expected from talks

Analysts suggested that while talks are likely to start again, it is too early to say how productive they might be.

Gary Samore, former special assistant to the President and senior director for nonproliferation at the White House, told RFA he believes working-level talks will resume “later in August or September,” but expects little to change.

“I don’t know that they’ll make very much progress because I don’t see much evidence that either the U.S. or North Korea have changed their position toward denuclearization,” he said.

Chris Hill, the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea between 2004 and 2005, agreed that the two sides may have their heels dug in too deeply to come to any agreements.

“The history of the working-level talks in the last year and a half has been that they are not very substantive and that they have a very unclear set of conclusions,” said Hill, who is currently Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

“I don’t think that we should assume that Trump is really interested in this or willing to make any concessions,” he said.

Ken Gause, senior foreign leadership analyst with Arlington-based research firm CAN, told RFA that in order to see real progress from talks, the U.S. will have to dangle substantial concessions in front of North Korea.

“You’re going to have to put something on the table significant enough that the North Koreans want to engage … I think it has to be economic,” he said.

“I don’t think the North Koreans are interested in security concessions. I think they’re interested in stuff that will put money into the regime.”

Frustrations acknowledged

Biegun’s comments came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged difficulty in dealing with North Korea in an interview on CBS.

“We haven’t gotten back to the table as quickly as we would have hoped, but we’ve been pretty clear all along we knew there would be bumps along the way,” he said, adding that he had felt frustrated by North Korea’s recent, repeated firing of short-range missiles.

“Yes, I wish that they would not,” Pompeo said.

“But in the end, Chairman Kim made a commitment to President Trump, in Singapore in June of last year, where he said he was prepared to denuclearize,” he added, referring to the first summit between the two leaders.