U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun arrived in South Korea on Tuesday, local media reported, kicking-off a three-day visit in which he will likely seek to restart working-level negotiations with the DPRK following weeks of stalemate and mounting tensions.
Biegun’s arrival in South Korea overlaps, notably, with the final day of joint ROK-U.S. drills on the peninsula, exercises which have provoked rage and indignation from Pyongyang.
It also follows six missile tests by the DPRK in the last four weeks, most recently on Friday, and hints at an increasing return to brinksmanship on the part of Pyongyang.
The visit comes over eight weeks since the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea agreed to restart working-level negotiations — talks originally expected to begin in mid-July.
Biegun is set on Wednesday to meet with local counterpart Lee Do-hoon, who serves as Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, as well as unification minister Kim Yeon-chul.
He will also meet with Blue House National Security Office Second Deputy Chief Kim Hyun-chong the following day.
But the rest of his itinerary during this week’s visit remains open, prompting widespread speculation that the Special Representative will seek to meet with his North Korean counterparts for talks at the Panmunjom peace village.
When asked for further details about the Special Representative’s schedule while in South Korea or about the prospects for working-level talks, the U.S. State Department told NK News that they do not have any additional meetings to announce.
Despite this, many believe this week’s visit presents a rare opportunity for the U.S., and that a meeting — even a short one — is possible.
“I think it is likely, even if it is just to set the terms for future negotiations,” Andray Abrahamian, a Koret Fellow at Stanford University, told NK News. “The U.S.-ROK joint drills are supposed to wrap up today, a necessary prerequisite.”
“It seems as if both sides were ready to move towards working level talks after the DMZ meeting, but everyone recognized these drills were going to take place and that North Korea would be acting displeased, taking countermeasures and avoiding contact while they did.”
Another expert said the end of the exercises — which Pyongyang has repeatedly condemned as “hostile military moves” — offered a unique opportunity for the two sides to meet in a moment of relative peace.
“It is certainly a prime opportunity to begin working-level talks with North Korea,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department diplomat and a contributor to NK Pro, NK News’s sister site.
“Biegun is in the region because this is a pivotal moment, a transition from a moment of tension to a moment of opportunity,” he continued.
“He clearly thinks there’s enough of a chance of U.S.-North Korea talks resuming soon that he felt the need to meet with the U.S. allies and get on the same page as much as possible.”
A meeting between the Special Representative and his North Korean counterparts at Panmunjom, should it go ahead, will be the first since the June 30 summit and Biegun’s fourth at the inter-Korean border this year.
Precisely who those counterparts might be is also up for debate, with Pyongyang having at June’s summit agreed to assemble a team to lead the working-level negotiations.
That team may include some familiar faces: first vice foreign minister and top DPRK-U.S. interlocutor Choe Son Hui is likely to make an appearance.
But with Pyongyang having just last week confirmed the recent appointment of a new vice foreign minister, the North’s delegation may also contain some new figures, too.
But any talks will likely be highly “exploratory” in nature, Mintaro Oba said, given their new format and the continued unresolved sources of contention between the U.S. and North Korea.
“Not just because this is really the beginning of the working-level process,” he explained. “But because the fundamental issues that led us to an impasse between the United States and North Korea in the first place have not been resolved.”
“It’s not clear if Biegun has the mandate to be flexible on key questions like sanctions relief or liaison offices, the President is as disengaged from the details as ever, and it doesn’t seem like there has been a change in Bolton or Pompeo’s preference for the hardline, ambitious approach to denuclearization that has failed thus far,” he added.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Biegun came to the table with a maximalist starting position carefully choreographed within the U.S. government. If he doesn’t, and instead puts some more interesting, creative ideas out there, that’s of course a great sign.”
The DPRK has also hinted at an increasing openness to hold talks with the U.S. in recent weeks, with leader Kim Jong Un having earlier in the month reported to have sent a letter to President Trump apologizing for a recent spate of missile testing.
The note also reportedly expressed an openness to “start negotiations” as soon as the then-ongoing joint military exercises were wrapped up.
“North Korea has toned down its rhetoric on the ROK-U.S. joint military drills in the last few days, presumably due to the fact that the drills are coming to a close,” said Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro.
“This seems to suggest that Pyongyang may be gearing up for resuming talks with the U.S.,” she continued.
“North Korea’s latest foreign ministry spokesperson’s press statement on the joint military drills also moderated the level of criticism of the U.S. and even explicitly said it was still interested in diplomacy.”
Despite this, Stanford University’s Abrahamian said, the time within the two parties can make progress in diplomacy is growing increasingly limited.
“If we don’t see any movement in the next couple weeks, I think we can start to worry about the viability of this process,” he said. “This is when details must be hammered out.”
Negotiators will also likely be aware that domestic political concerns may increasingly limit both Kim Jong Un and President Trump’s flexibility, Abrahamian stressed.
“If talks don’t reconvene it will be a sign that politics in Pyongyang are too uncertain and tense; this will spill over into their December/January political season in which the new year’s lines and policies are hammered out,” he said.
“Then come spring election season in the U.S. will be ramping up. It needs to be now.”
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: State Department EAP Bureau