US reinforces team handling NK

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Sept 5, 2018 - 16:29
  • Updated : Sept 5, 2018 - 18:17

The US State Department appears to have boosted a lineup of senior officials handling North Korea affairs amid stalled denuclearization talks, which experts say is a sign of Washington’s willingness to resolve the nuclear standoff.

The US has filled the posts needed to conduct negotiations with North Korea -- US ambassador to South Korea and US special representative for North Korea -- and reportedly created the role of deputy assistant secretary for North Korea.
Marc Knapper, who until recently served as acting US ambassador to South Korea, was named acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan issues, according to local news reports citing diplomatic sources.

Mark Lambert, the State Department’s director for Korea policy, has served as acting deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan and acting special representative for North Korea, but he was assigned to a new role handling North Korea issues at the level of deputy assistant secretary, according to the reports.

Lambert took part in negotiating with North Korean officials in preparation for the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June.

The US Embassy in Seoul said that there had not been an official announcement made from Washington.

“The State Department lacked people handling North Korean affairs. The addition of officials to the team in charge of North Korea, and heightened interest in the North Korea issue would be a good sign (for the South Korean government),” a government official from the Foreign Ministry said on condition of anonymity. 

Some of the key posts handling issues related to the two Koreas have been left vacant, triggering concerns over the shortage of seasoned US diplomats experienced in directly dealing with North Koreans.

Harry Harris, former head of the US Pacific Command, assumed his role in July as an ambassador to South Korea to fill the position that had been left vacant since US President Trump took office.

Stephen Biegun, a senior executive at Ford Motor, was tapped as the US special representative for North Korea last month. He will handle day-to-day talks with Pyongyang, according to the State Department.

The State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asia still has not been confirmed.

Biegun is expected to travel to Seoul next week to meet with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon and other Foreign Ministry officials as part of his Asia tour. He is to be accompanied by Lambert.

The new team could accelerate the denuclearization and peace-building process if negotiations with North Korea go well, according to Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“Enhancing the team in the State Department shows Trump’s willingness to focus his efforts on solving the North Korea nuclear issue. It is good for the South Korean government that the newly appointed officials are equipped with expertise and Biegun has access to Trump,” Choi said.

“It seems likely that Lambert and Knapper will closely assist Biegun, who might lack field experience regarding North Korea.”

At the Singapore summit in June, Trump and Kim agreed to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for security guarantees from the US.

But negotiations have stalled as the US and North Korea want the other side to make concessions first. North Korea demands the US agree to declare an end to the Korean War, but the US wants the North to take concrete steps to denuclearize first.