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(LEAD) Biegun says U.S. is eager for follow-up talks with N. Korea

All News 14:46 December 21, 2018

(ATTN: COMBINES with story sent under slug "Koreas-joint project"; ADDS more info throughout, photo)

SEOUL, Dec. 21 (Yonhap) -- The top U.S. point man on North Korea said Friday his government is "eager" to move on to the next stage of talks with the communist nation in an apparent effort to move their stalled denuclearization negotiations forward.

Stephen Biegun, special representative for North Korea, also reaffirmed Washington's willingness to ease restrictions on humanitarian assistance for the impoverished country.

"Humanitarian assistance is not blocked by the U.N. sanctions. However, some of the reviews of licenses and travel approvals do affect the ability of humanitarian organizations to do very important work in North Korea," he told reporters after meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon.

The U.S. official, however, made it clear that the U.S. will stick to its sanctions until North Korea takes further steps for denuclearization, while leaving open the door for efforts aimed at building mutual trust with the North.

"The U.S. has no intention of easing our unilateral or U.N. sanctions," he said. "However, within the context of the engagement we had with the DPRK, we are prepared to explore a number of other things that could build trust between the U.S. and North Korea."

DPRK is the abbreviation for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Asked about the Seoul government's push for the provision of US$8 million worth of humanitarian aid to the North through international agencies, Biegun said the U.S. will review how to approve related licenses.

"We talked about these issues and we agreed to take some steps moving forward in the next year. We will have more to say about it at our next meeting," he said.

On arriving in South Korea on Wednesday, Biegun said that the U.S. will "reevaluate" its ban on American citizens' travel to North Korea early next year to facilitate aid groups' humanitarian assistance to the communist state. This has raised the prospect that Seoul could go ahead with its long-suspended aid plan for the North.

His latest comments were also seen as an apparent attempt to revive the drawn-out denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

The envoy extended an olive branch on Friday, saying Washington intends to advance denuclearization and relations with North Korea. "We are eager to move to the next stage of discussions with our North Korean partners," he said.

On a second summit between President Donald Trump and the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, Biegun did not elaborate, only saying that the two countries are "working to arrive on an agreeable outcome in that regard."

Trump earlier said that he expects to have a second summit with Kim in January or February. He later said that the U.S. is "in no hurry" to negotiate with North Korea, signaling a further delay in his meeting with the North's leader.

During the meeting on Friday, South Korean and U.S. diplomats also agreed to hold the highly symbolic groundbreaking ceremony next week as planned for an inter-Korean project to modernize and reconnect roads and railways across the inter-Korean border.

Speculation has arisen that the U.S. might not be willing to approve the project on concerns that it does not want inter-Korean relations to improve quickly while there is little progress in denuclearization efforts.

Lee, Seoul's top nuclear envoy, said the two Koreas will proceed with their joint war remains recovery program under the Trump administration's agreement.

Lee also said they resolved the challenges that have blocked the provision of Tamiflu to the North, which is apparently in need of the antiviral medication.

South Korea and the U.S. launched the working group consultation channel in November to coordinate their approach toward North Korea amid concerns over a possible mismatch of progress in denuclearization talks and inter-Korean cooperation.

"We have agreed that the period from now on to early next year is a critical moment in achieving complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and building peace," Lee said. "We agreed to work together for a prompt resumption of working-level talks between the U.S. and North Korea."

Stephen Biegun (C), the top U.S. diplomat on North Korea, answers reporters' questions after his second meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, in Seoul on Dec. 21, 2018. (Yonhap)

Stephen Biegun (C), the top U.S. diplomat on North Korea, answers reporters' questions after his second meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, in Seoul on Dec. 21, 2018. (Yonhap)



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