About the Authors
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The top U.S. negotiator for North Korea will head to Pyongyang on Wednesday to continue talks over denuclearization and the next summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the State Department announced late on Monday.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will meet his recently-appointed counterpart Kim Hyok Chol in the North Korean capital, the press release added.
The two sides will use the talks “to prepare for the President’s second summit with Chairman Kim and advance further progress on the commitments the President and Chairman Kim made in Singapore,” it said.
These include “complete denuclearization, transforming U.S.-DPRK relations, and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula,” according to the release.
The visit will be the second by Biegun to the North Korean capital, following a trip last October in which he met with DPRK leader Kim Jong Un.
The U.S. Special Representative is currently in Seoul, having arrived on Sunday to hold a series of meetings with top South Korean officials ahead of an expected meeting with his North Korean counterpart.
He held talks with local counterpart Lee Do-hoon on Sunday and Blue House National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong Monday, where denuclearization and the next U.S.-DPRK summit were discussed, according to Presidential Spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom.
South Korea’s foreign ministry also indicated at the outset of the trip that Biegun is scheduled to meet with Lee again following his talks in Pyongyang.
One diplomatic expert told NK News that while the visit was “not surprising” given the timing, it was a welcome development.
“It is a welcome sign that it is Biegun, who has previously had difficulty establishing contact with his North Korean counterparts,” Mintaro Oba, a former State Department East Asia desk officer, said.
“Hopefully this is the first step toward establishing a long-term diplomatic process between Biegun and North Korea.”
Biegun’s trip to Korea follows an attention-grabbing speech at Stanford University last week, in which the Special Representative offered what many experts believe was the clearest view of the U.S. negotiating stance in many months.
There, Biegun said “President Trump is ready to end this war, it is over, it is done, we are not going to invade North Korea, we are not seeking to topple the regime.”
He also said that while both sides have yet to agree to a shared definition of denuclearization, the U.S. would “have to find the right balance” between sanctions pressure and concessions which will keep the process going.
That speech, one expert said, likely “impressed” diplomats in Pyongyang.
“Clearly the days of Pyongyang ignoring U.S. Rep. Steve Biegun are over,” Harry Kazianis, Director of Korea Studies at the Center for the National Interest, told NK News.
“[It’s] a clear sign the North are now willing to engage in mid-level working groups to advance the goals put forward in the Singapore declaration,” he added.
“Biegun will likely be trying to nail down the key agenda items and deliverables both sides will be willing to accept to ensure the summit is a success.”
While no official date and location for the next U.S.-DPRK summit have been announced, President Trump on Sunday said the confirmation would likely come during his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening “or shortly before.”
But that announcement may hinge on success in Biegun’s talks in the DPRK capital on Wednesday, with one expert saying the high-stakes talks could make-or-break the ongoing rapprochement between the U.S. and North Korea.
“I think both sides know that this is the moment,” Andray Abrahamian, a Koret Fellow at Stanford University, told NK News. “This month is the most important in a generation. If the two sides miss this chance, we could easily see decades more of sanctions, WMD programs and hostility.”
North Korean media on Monday reiterated calls for “corresponding” steps from the United States in return for what it described at good-will steps towards denuclearization.
“It is clear that that the bilateral relations can make a progress at a fast speed if the U.S. responds to the DPRK’s proactive and prior efforts with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions,” a commentary in DPRK Today said.
What precisely these corresponding actions might be, Abrahamian said, will likely be the focus of talks in Pyongyang tomorrow.
“Obviously the two sides will have to negotiate the value of the steps taken thus far and how future steps should be valued,” he said.
“The Americans want to see a number of big moves quickly so there are concrete deliverables towards denuclearization and sanctions relief, aid and peace to announce at the upcoming summit.”
Featured image: State Department Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.