South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy departed Seoul for Washington DC on Wednesday morning, in a visit that will see him meet with U.S. counterparts and seek to come up with new ways to break through a now months-long impasse in talks with North Korea.
Lee Do-hoon, whose formal title is Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, told reporters before his departure that he would be meeting with Deputy Secretary of State and Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun during his visit.
The two, he said, would seek to “think together about methods to overcome the current situation together.”
Lee’s visit to the U.S. comes amid growing South Korean frustrations over the now months-long diplomatic impasse between the U.S. and North Korea, an impasse driven, in part, by Washington’s reluctance to provide Pyongyang with sanctions relief until more concrete steps are taken towards denuclearization.
Those sanctions have proven a major obstacle to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s long-standing plans to expand economic cooperation with the North, including a potential re-opening of the once jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the connection of road and rail along the inter-Korean border.
Speaking at a new year’s press conference on Tuesday, President Moon told reporters that Seoul could now move to “make progress a little more independently,” including by taking steps to restart inter-Korean tourism and facilitate greater South Korean travel to the North.
Such a move would likely ruffle feathers in Washington, however, where pressuring Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear arsenal and return to negotiations remains the top priority.
“We will do what we can within the current sanctions first and see how things can be coordinated,” Special Representative Lee told reporters ahead of his departure on Wednesday.
“DPRK-U.S. relations should be promoted through improving inter-Korean relations,” he stressed, adding it was in the U.S. and South Korea’s “mutual interest” to develop new ways to “promote dialogue within the framework of sanctions.”
Meanwhile, a series of high-profile meetings in the U.S. on Tuesday saw top administration officials reaffirm the importance of relations with South Korea and Japan in achieving North Korea’s denuclearization — and appearing to move the goalposts of what Washington expects Pyongyang to do.
Speaking following a meeting at the Pentagon with Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper affirmed close ties between the two countries.
Washington and Tokyo, defense minister Kono added, had affirmed support for the “full implementation” of UN sanctions that would see the “resolution of complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of [North Korea’s] ballistic missiles.”
Top U.S. and South Korean diplomats also met in Silicon Valley, California on Tuesday, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha to affirm support for “continued close U.S.-ROK coordination on North Korea.”
The two diplomats, a readout from Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said, “exchanged views on managing the situation to maintain the momentum for and resume the denuclearization dialogue process through close South Korea-U.S. coordination.”
Edited by James Fretwell