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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Stephen Biegun on Friday said Washington would keep the door open for dialogue with Pyongyang.
The comments by the U.S.’s top diplomat on North Korean issues — in Seoul until Saturday — came just a day after the DPRK conducted its second missile test in a week.
Speaking during a meeting with foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha, Biegun said he empathized with Seoul’s concerns that that test would serve to undermine efforts to improve “inter-Korean relations and alleviate military tensions.”
The U.S. “still holds the door open for North Korea to return to negotiations,” a read-out of the meeting by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said.
The two sides, he said, “face a very significant timing of continuing communications and cooperation between the ROK and the U.S.”
“Minister Kang said she is deeply concerned over the recent launch of short-range missiles as it does not help efforts to improve inter-Korean relations and alleviate military tensions on the Korean peninsula at all,” the MOFA said in a Korean-language statement.
The foreign minister “emphasized the importance of earnest dialogue between the two Koreas and the U.S. to achieve complete denuclearization and establish permanent peace,” it added.
Friday also saw Biegun preside over a meeting of the ROK-U.S. working group on North Korean issues, two months after that group’s last meeting in Washington in March.
Today’s session of the group was headed by Biegun and his local counterpart, South Korea’s top nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon, with the two also holding a one-on-one meeting.
Both sides used those talks to evaluate recent developments, including the North’s recent “firing of short-range missiles,” the MOFA said in a Korean-language statement.
Seoul and Washington reportedly held a “broad and in-depth discussion over ways to coordinate to make advances in complete denuclearization and settlement of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula.”
The two also agreed that the working group “plays the pivotal role in the ROK-U.S. coordination” on issues related to North Korea and its nuclear program, promising to hold a follow-up discussion “at an early date.”
The South Korea and the U.S. also agreed to “strengthen policy coordination on various pending issues related to the Korean peninsula.”
Biegun’s visit to Seoul this week has seen the Special Representative keep a relatively low profile, particularly in the wake of Thursday’s missile test.
While Seoul and Washington had initially planned to open Friday’s meeting between Biegun and foreign minister Kang to the media, a foreign ministry official told NK News that plan was later retracted.
Biegun also canceled a planned scheduled doorstep press briefing by himself and special envoy Lee Do-hoon, set to take place following the meeting of the ROK-U.S. working group, the official continued.
The Blue House said Biegun also met Kim Hyun-chong, second deputy chief of the presidential National Security Office (NSO) for 80 minutes from 1500 local time, following his meetings at the foreign ministry.
The two evaluated recent developments and “follow-up measures to the outcome of the phone conversation” between U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday, the Blue House said in a written statement.
They also discussed how Seoul and Washington can work together to “achieve complete denuclearization and establish peace” on the peninsula, it added.
But there appear to have been some logistical confusion between the two sides, with the Blue House having prior to the meeting been unable to confirm Biegun’s counterpart for dialogue when contacted by NK News Friday morning.
It is notable, too, that the U.S. Special Representative is yet to meet with NSO Director Chung Eui-yong — one of South Korea’s top officials dealing with North Korea — during his visit.
The two last held talks in February, following a three-day visit to Pyongyang by Biegun in the run up to the second DPRK-U.S. summit. They also met in October and December last year.
The U.S. Special Representative also on Friday afternoon met the recently-appointed South Korean Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul for the first time.
Biegun and Kim discussed “North Korea’s humanitarian situation, denuclearization, and the peace process on the Korean peninsula,” the Ministry of Unification (MOU) said in a written statement.
“Both sides agreed that it is important to stably manage the situation on the Korean peninsula,” the MOU said.
“They reaffirmed that inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. dialogue must be resumed swiftly through the cooperation between the ROK and the U.S.”
Seoul and Washington also appeared to have sought to keep the meeting low-key: around three hours before the meeting took place, the South Korean MOU confirmed that it had canceled plans to share opening statements by Biegun and Kim.
But though it was widely expected that the two sides would discuss ongoing plans for Seoul to deliver humanitarian food assistance to the North — given the green light by the U.S. President earlier in the week — the unification did not mention the issues in its statement on the talks.
The MOU on Friday also appeared to step back from its original support for the expeditious sending of that aid to the DPRK, likely in light of Thursday’s test.
“Our government’s stance that food assistance is needed at the compatriot and humanitarian level as North Korea’s food situation is very serious,” deputy spokesperson Lee Eu-gene told a press briefing earlier in the day.
“But we will push forward the plan after sufficiently gathering opinions from the public as the national consensus and support are needed.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)