While at first glance it may appear unusual that the current U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, is leading talks with North Korea this week, the choice may prove particularly savvy when considering his background.
Ambassador Sung Kim, who was reported in the Washington Post to have traveled to the North Korean side of Panmunjom on Sunday to lead a delegation alongside two other U.S. officials, has a long history of working with both North and South Korea.
Originally born in South Korea in 1960, Kim came to the U.S. in 1973 and became an American citizen in 1980. He then joined the Foreign Service in 1988, beginning his career with a post in Hong Kong.
Now in the Philippines, Kim has remained focused on Asia throughout his career, with assignments in Malaysia, Japan, and multiple stints in South Korea – first moving to Seoul for two years in 1990, again from 2002 to 2006, and most notably as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 2011 to 2014.
While stationed in Washington, he held posts as Staff Assistant in the Department of State’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Political-Military Officer in the Office of Chinese Affairs, and Director of the Office of Korean Affairs.
But it is Kim’s past experience negotiating with North Koreans that makes him an unsurprising choice for what appears to be a new role as top American delegate to this week’s U.S.-North Korea talks.
As U.S. Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks with North Korea from 2008 to 2011, Kim’s work mainly focused on first implementing a 2007 agreement which would see the North disable its nuclear facilities in exchange for U.S. fuel and economic aid, and attempting to restart talks when negotiations later broke down.
Kim attended the demolition of a cooling tower at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site in June 2008, calling it a “very significant disablement step” after witnessing the event – he had already traveled to the site the previous year as part of preparations.
He continued to try and keep the agreement alive, meeting with his North Korean counterparts through the summer of 2008, though negotiations ultimately collapsed in December that year.
He then returned to a more direct role in negotiations as U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy in 2014 following three years as ambassador to South Korea.
Kim attended the demolition of a cooling tower at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site in June 2008
This period in U.S.-North Korea relations was mostly marked by missile tests, international sanctions, and the North’s fourth and fifth nuclear tests – the latter of which occurred in the final days of Kim’s position in September 2016, just a month before he was named ambassador to the Philippines.
Speaking during a press conference following the North’s fifth nuclear test, Kim admitted his “frustration and concern that sanctions and pressure have not resulted in immediate or instant success,” but praised sanctions for “making it hard for North Korea to earn foreign currencies to support illicit activities.”
He even crossed paths in June 2016 with Vice Foreign-Minister Choe Son Hui – the North’s lead negotiator for the six-party talks at the time and Kim’s primary counterpart in this week’s negotiations in North Korea – at the 26th Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue in Beijing.
Choe and Kim are thus likely familiar with each other, though American officials denied that any official meeting took place between the two in Beijing in 2016.
But as an individual with existing relationships with North Korean negotiators and a supporter of the 2007 denuclearization agreement, Kim may now be considered a valuable asset for the Trump administration, which is trying to achieve a similar – albeit stricter – agreement.
Having served in relevant positions coinciding with North Korea’s second through fifth nuclear tests (out of six total), Kim has also represented the U.S. during more difficult periods of its relations with the North.
An ongoing glut of senior American diplomats with responsibility could also be playing a role to bring Kim to the forefront of DPRK-U.S. diplomacy.
The President has yet to appoint a diplomat to replace Joseph Yun, Kim’s successor as Special Representative for North Korea Policy, for example – a crucial position that remains empty in the weeks leading up to the Kim-Trump summit.
Kim may now be considered a valuable asset for the Trump administration
Ambassador Sung Kim is reportedly on Monday back on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area for a second day of talks over preparations for the planned U.S.-North Korea summit, originally scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore.
U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly canceled the summit on May 24, but a relatively tempered response from North Korea the following day and a surprise fourth inter-Korean summit just two days later between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un opened the path for resumed U.S.-North Korea talks.
Sung Kim and his team are now expected to continue negotiations through Tuesday, which may result in a more definitive answer to the question of whether or not the Trump-Kim summit will indeed take place on June 12 or at a later date.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of State
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