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US envoy on N. Korea arrives in Seoul for talks

Stephen Biegun, the US’ special representative for North Korea, arrived in South Korea on Sunday to meet with his counterpart to discuss the countries’ shared efforts to rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons programs. 

Stephen Biegun, the US' special representative for North Korea (Yonhap)
Stephen Biegun, the US' special representative for North Korea (Yonhap)

On Monday, Biegun is set to hold separate meetings with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, and with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to discuss issues including recent developments on Washington’s efforts to hold high-level and working-level talks with North Korean officials.

Biegun and Lee are expected to discuss the issue of sanctions exemptions to pave the way for inter-Korean cooperation projects such as the reconnection of cross-border railways and roads, which Seoul argues will facilitate Pyongyang’s denuclearization.

As he arrived in the afternoon, Biegun refused to answer any questions from South Korean reporters. Accompanying him were Allison Hooker, National Security Council adviser, and Kevin Kim, senior adviser at the State Department.

Biegun’s visit comes amid a lack of progress in denuclearization talks between North Korea and the US. A war of nerves between Pyongyang and Washington is intensifying ahead of a possible second summit expected early next year.

North Korea has stepped up calls for sanctions relief and an end-of-war declaration in return for goodwill measures it has already taken, such as a dismantling of its Punggye-ri nuclear site, while the US has demanded the North take concrete denuclearization steps first.

The North is increasingly raising complaints with South Korea for a lack of progress on inter-Korean projects, which cannot advance dramatically without sanctions relief, and it is seen to be moving closer to Russia and China.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Shin Hong-chol arrived in Moscow on Saturday, possibly to discuss North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia, which is also expected to be high on the agenda during Biegun’s meeting with Kim.

Biegun’s fourth visit to Seoul comes less than a week after he met with his South Korean counterpart in Washington.

His visit to Seoul sparked speculation over possible progress in the US-North Korea negotiations, or possible working-level talks between the countries at the border truce village of Panmunjom, but Washington has denied this.

The US seeks to hold working-level and senior-level talks with North Korean officials to move forward on denuclearization and prepare for a second summit with the North, but it has yet to receive a response from the North, according to diplomatic sources here.